Hejira   (23.11.12)

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line

Here is the title track from Hejira -- and, I think, the finest song on that album. The meandering guitar work perfectly supports the extreme lostness of the lyrics.

Hejira Hejira by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here's a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They're either going to thaw out or freeze
Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tribute to finality to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years
We're only particles of change I know I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room

I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way

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Blue Motel Room   (23.10.12)

It's funny how these old feelings hang around
You think they're gone; no, no, they just go underground

From Hejira, "Blue Motel Room" is one of Joni Mitchell's most laid-back songs.

Blue Motel Room by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

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Radiohead at Manchester Arena, October 6th 2012   (7.10.12)

Well, I'd been waiting to hear Radiohead for approaching fifteen years... and yesterday it finally happened! They played a range of songs from almost all their albums (setlist here) and were supported by the brilliant Caribou (setlist here). Here's a few photos of the amazing AV... and a video of Pyramid Song.

Radiohead Manchester

Radiohead Manchester

Radiohead Manchester

Radiohead Manchesetr

Coyote   (1.10.12)

The opening track from Joni Mitchell's Hejira (1976). She wrote this album on, and about, a solo road trip she took across the States -- hence her reference to being "the prisoner of the fine white lines on the free freeway".

Coyote by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I'm up all night in the studio
And you're up early on your ranch
You'll be brushing out a brood mare's tail
While the sun is ascending
And I'll just be getting home with my reel to reel...
There's no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You're not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

We saw a farmhouse burning down
In the middle of nowhere
In the middle of the night
And we rolled right past that tragedy
Till we turned into some road house lights
Where a local band was playing
Locals were up kicking and shaking on the floor
And the next thing I know
That Coyote's at my door
He pins me in a corner and he won't take "No!"
He drags me out on the dance floor
And we're dancing close and slow
Now he's got a woman at home
He's got another woman down the hall
He seems to want me anyway
Why'd you have to get so drunk
And lead me on that way
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines of the freeway

I looked a Coyote right in the face
On the road to Baljennie near my old home town
He went running thru the whisker wheat
Chasing some prize down
And a hawk was playing with him
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes
He had those same eyes - just like yours
Under your dark glasses
Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them thru this passion play

No regrets, Coyote
I just get off up aways
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

Coyote's in the coffee shop
He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he's watching the waitresses' legs
He's too far from the Bay of Fundy
From Appaloosas and Eagles and tides
And the air conditioned cubicles
And the carbon ribbon rides
Are spelling it out so clear
Either he's going to have to stand and fight
Or take off out of here
I tried to run away myself
To run away and wrestle with my ego
And with this flame
You put here in this Eskimo
In this hitcher
In this prisoner
Of the fine white lines
Of the white lines on the free, free way

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When bigotry isn't   (22.9.12)

Last week, Nick Clegg almost called some opponents of equal marriage "bigots". In the end, the word was dropped. In response, Stuart Pierce wrote (caution: Daily Mail)

The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines bigoted as: ‘Unreasonably prejudiced and intolerant.’ In other words, Nick Clegg.

Pierce seeks to establish a false symmetry between the "bigotry" of equal marriage opponents, which he denies, and that of Nick Clegg, which he alleges.

I think there's one thing worth pointing out in response to this pretension of balance. When equal marriage is advocated, no change is proposed to the marriage rights of heterosexuals. They will still be able to marry in exactly the same way as before. When, however, equal marriage is opposed, gay couples are denied an important civil liberty, as well as the opportunity to make a public commitment on the same terms as everyone else.

The claim that extending marriage to gay people is a form of "intolerance" or "bigotry" is, therefore, demonstrably absurd -- and a sign of intellectual desperation on the part of those who make it.

The Last Time I Saw Richard   (19.9.12)

This is the final track on Joni Mitchell's Blue, and one if its finest. On the album it's a lonely, regretful and bare soliliquy, accompanied only by Mitchell on the piano. It concludes with one of the most poignant final chords of any record.

Here, though, is a live performance she gave in 1974. It's light, whimsical, and strong; perhaps benevolent time had begun to heal a painful separation. Next time, I'll move on to another great Joni Mitchell album, Hejira (1976). You can buy Blue here.

The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe
You laugh, he said you think you're immune, go look at your eyes
They're full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies, pretty lies
When you gonna realise they're only pretty lies
Only pretty lies, just pretty lies

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr
And a bar maid came by in fishnet stockings and a bow tie
And she said "Drink up now it's gettin' on time to close."
"Richard, you haven't really changed," I said
It's just that now you're romanticizing some pain that's in your head
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a Coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright
I'm gonna blow this damn candle out
I don't want Nobody comin' over to my table
I got nothing to talk to anybody about
All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes
Dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days

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Workplace discrimination   (14.9.12)

There's a nice point in tomorrow's Economist regarding workplace discrimination, and how it is one of the biggest issues for ethnic minority workers:

As for a substantive policy comparable to gay marriage, the issue that divides ethnic-minority people most clearly from the rest of the electorate is workplace discrimination. White people don’t think it happens, black and brown people do. Since there is plenty of evidence that black and brown people are right, the Tories should spend a little time thinking how, without tying business up in red tape, they might change behaviour. A name-and-shame policy, perhaps, for the businesses who regularly lose discrimination cases. If the Tories get the message right, they could make a lot more friends.

A Case of You   (8.9.12)

This is track 9 on Joni Mitchell's Blue. She plays the Appalachian dulcimer, while James Taylor (then her boyfriend) accompanies on guitar.

A Case of You by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

Just before our love got lost you said
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I'd be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet

Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I'm frightened by the devil
And I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid

I remember that time you told me you said
"Love is touching souls"
Surely you touched mine
'Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet

I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said
"Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed"

Oh but you are in my blood
You're my holy wine
You're so bitter, bitter and so sweet

Oh, I could drink a case of you darling
Still I'd be on my feet
I would still be on my feet

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Wet Williams   (8.9.12)

Rowan Williams says that the government has "embarrassed" the Church of England by consulting the public on gay marriage. I say that the church embarrassed itself by submitting a response to the consultation which incompetently engaged with the arguments it opposed.

As for embarrassments in general: it's only possible to embarrass an organisation if it's got something to be embarrassed about. That'd be the Church's record of lies, cowardice, and hypocrisy on the subject of homosexuality, then.

For some overdue theological integrity, I refer you to Jeffrey John.

Pardon, why not?   (2.9.12)

In February of this year I explained why I believe that the decision was wrong not to pardon Alan Turing (computer science pioneer, codebreaker, and consensual-gay-sex convict). At the time, Justice Minister Lord McNally stated that

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence". [...] However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

I argued that "It is not about trying 'to put right what cannot be put right'; it is about acknowledging, here and now, that what happened to Turing was wrong". A few months after that decision, the Protection of Freedoms Act received royal assent. Part of that Act means that those with gay sex convictions can from next month apply to have them removed from the criminal records database (although presumably this does not amount to a judicial pardon).

So now, I ask the questions: if these convictions are to be deleted from criminal registers, why should these people not also receive a pardon? And if living convicts should receive a pardon, why not also deceased ones -- a good number of whom died through the state's abuse of its judicial apparatus?

Blue   (30.8.12)

Blue Blue by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

This is the title track of Joni Mitchell's album Blue.

Blue songs are like tattoos
You know I've been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away
Hey Blue, here is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
Well there're so many sinking now
You've got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs lots of laughs
Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go
Well I don't think so
But I'm gonna take a look around it though
Blue I love you

Blue here is a shell for you
Inside you'll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me

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All I Want   (28.8.12)

Joni Mitchell All I Want by Joni Mitchell on Grooveshark

This is the first in a new series of posts on this blog giving a guided tour of the wonderful music of Joni Mitchell. First up: All I Want is the opening track from her 1971 album Blue. Both this song and the album's last track (The Last Time I Saw Richard) were last-minute additions to the release. It simply wouldn't be the masterpiece it is without these intense lyrics standing at each end. In 1979 Joni Mitchell reflected:

The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.

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Dooley's toffee   (7.8.12)

A while back day Mark Dooley penned an article in the Mail entitled, "Why to be against gay marriage is not bigoted".

As I don't want to read any further, I'll comment here only upon the title, which I accept Mr Dooley probably didn't devise. I'd guess what it means to say is "Why to be against gay marriage is not necessarily bigoted". It's true that arguments can be advanced against gay marriage which are not rooted in bigotry. However, it's also true that arguments can be advanced against gay marriage which are rooted in bigotry; so whether someone's opposition to gay marriage is or isn't bigoted will depend on exactly which arguments that someone makes in its support.

To consider an analogy, someone can oppose take-aways in their residential area for entirely unbigoted reasons: for example, out of concern for levels of litter and noise. But someone can also oppose take-aways in their residential area because they think that they'll be run by foreigners and they don't like foreigners much.

Mr Dooley states that "Liberals become irrational when they claim that their conservative adversaries are ‘homophobic’". (I lied; it was like watching a car crash.) Well, in line with my take-aways analogy, the truth of this depends entirely on whether those conservative adversaries actually are advancing arguments based in prejudice. Opposition to gay marriage cannot be accepted as unbigoted simply because it has the potential to be unbigoted; we need to examine the arguments. And when we do, we'll discover that some of them are indeed rooted in bigotry, stereotype and prejudice.

O Waly Waly   (7.8.12)

Is there a finer folksong arrangement than this? Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears perform Britten's O Waly Waly.

When love is old, it groweth cold
And fades away like morning dew.

Distressing churches   (7.8.12)

Last weekend Giles Fraser wrote a column in the Guardian entitled "Church, like therapy, is a space where you are allowed to bring your distress". To which my immediate response was to laugh, and then remark, "not in my experience, mate".

Okay, okay. Let's be a bit more charitable. Perhaps Giles Fraser really means "Church, like therapy, should be a space where you are allowed to bring your distress". But, wouldn't you say, there's quite a difference between "is" and "should be"? Specifically, I'd say, the difference between reality and fantasy.

The first time in ten years that I brought my "distress" to church, I was treated to a cocktail of public insult and humiliation from someone in a position of pastoral care. The church's standards frequently fall far below those of the secular workplace, yet somehow the church finds it possible to talk down to the rest of society precisely on these issues of fairness, exploitation, and "distress".

Jeffrey John: Church "does not speak with integrity" on gay marriage   (25.7.12)

Naturalistic fallacies all round   (19.7.12)

There's a thing in moral philosophy called the naturalistic fallacy. One kind of naturalistic fallacy is a claim that something is good because it is natural. Such claims are generally regarded as fallacious because they are both formal non-sequiturs, and because they often lead to conclusions which are morally counterintuitive (for example, "killing is natural therefore it is good").

Representatives on both sides of the gay marriage debate have attempted to support their arguments with naturalistic fallacies, and it is doing nobody any favours. On the one hand, some who support equal marriage point out that the phenomenon of homosexuality is present in thousands of species; its being present in nature is presented as grounds for its morality. On the other hand, some who oppose equal marriage point out that the phenomenon of heterosexuality is more natural than homosexuality, because males and females possess complementary genitalia. Each side attempts to derive moral norms from biological facts.

One would have hoped that thousands of years of western philosophy might have enabled a more sophisticated debate than this: one side claiming that gay marriage is okay because penguins dunnit, and the other side driving home that Peg A goes into Slot B, and therefore gayers are marital pariahs. Such claims reduce the question of marriage to one of biology, when the debate should really be about moral rights and the nature of the good.

Women bishops   (8.7.12)

Tomorrow, the Church of England may or may not vote on proposals to allow the consecration of women bishops, twelve years after the issue as such was first presented to General Synod. The Church of England's 44 diocesan synods approved the draft legislation by an overwhelming majority during the past year (42 voted in favour). However in May this year, the Bishops, in their wisdom, chose to throw a major spanner in the works by adding a substantial amendment to legislation which had already been voted upon at diocesan level.

The amendment is a further concession to parishes which refuse to recognise the ministry of women, and therefore demand oversight from not only a male bishop, but a male bishop whose views are theologically consonant with their own, and who has moreover not been "tainted" by a woman's ministry, either by receiving communion (bread and wine) from a female priest, or by having been ordained by a female bishop. Nobody can accuse the church of rushing into this reform: it is twenty years since the first women priests were consecrated, and they now make up 5,000 of the CofE's ordained staff. It is to the church's credit that it has explored so deeply how to keep everyone on board.

However, I believe we have reached the point in this debate where the medicine is at risk of killing the patient. The bishops' cackhanded amendment risks legitimating the unbiblical and more than faintly offensive theology of "taint". It also proposes to enshrine compulsory discrimination in law, by mandating that women bishops must submit to a male bishop in ministering to dissenting parishes. Furthermore, such a solution as this would set an alarming precedent, given the other issues facing the church. If conservative parishes are to receive special episcopal provision, why not liberal parishes who don't feel like serving under a conservative bishop? And what if evangelical parishes decide that a bishop's ministry is also "tainted" by having received communion or been ordained by a gay bishop?

If this is a recipe for church unity, it is an odd one. The spectre is now of a church made up of legally codified factions, each demanding bespoke episcopal oversight to sate a particular theological appetite. If this is to be the outcome, will it really be meaningful to talk about the "Church" of England in the future?

Jacobian semantics   (3.7.12)

Actor Derek Jacobi has described the campaign for equal marriage as a "squabble over nothing", saying marriage is "just a word". He's entitled to that view, of course; but I'm not convinced that he really holds it. If he did indeed view it as "meaningless", and "just a word", why would he be so determined not to use it to describe his civil partnership? I suggest that he would so choose because it is actually not "just a word", and that he actually feels that using the word would say something about his relationship that he doesn't want it to. That's quite understandable, given the chequered history of marriage as an institution.

If he, and others like him, don't want to use the word "marriage" to describe their relationships, then that's fine: nobody is going to force him to. But, for every Derek Jacobi, there is an Elton John who does regard marriage as a meaningful word that is relevant to their relationship. In short: some gay people are not interested in marriage. How is that an argument for preventing those who are from entering into it?

A list of hypocrisies   (2.7.12)

The Church of England a few weeks ago issued its official position on the government's consultation on equal marriage. Here are some hypocrisies it contains.

1. In paragraph 15, the CofE claims that the majority of its bishops supported civil partnerships. This is manifestly untrue. First, a majority of its 26 Lords Spiritual did not attend readings of the Civil Partnerships Bill, let alone vote on it. Second, at the Civil Partnerships Bill's main reading in the House of Lords, bishops voted 6 to 1 against the Bill, by supporting a wrecking amendment (which was later revoked when the Bill returned to the Commons). Senior clergy have recently misled the public about this fact of history in articles and radio interviews, claiming that the church "supported" the legislation.

2. In paragraph 16, the CofE claims that the only reason it has heard to justify equal marriage for same-sex couples is that it meets an "emotional need" of some gay people. (God forbid that the church should be interested in the emotional wellbeing of its minorities!) If this really is the only reason they've heard in support of the change, they have clearly not been listening to many people. Here's a few more reasons: a) it removes an inequality in legal treatment of different people in society; b) it provides equality before the law; c) it publicly affirms to society the equal value of committed gay relationships; d) it provides a secure framework within which gay parents can care for their children. I could go on, but since the church has so far managed to hear only one reason, I wouldn't want to overburden it with more than this.

3. The "equal value" of gay relationships is, incidentally, something that the church clearly does not believe in. The documents Issues in Human Sexuality, as well as the bishops' report on the Civil Partnerships Bill, make it clear that gay relationships "fall short" of heterosexual ones. Sentamu's notion that preventing gay people from marrying does not "diminish" their relationships is clearly disingenuous, particularly when he is simultaneously using the language of marriage being "diluted" by this proposal. (Heads up: "dilute" means almost the same as "diminish".)

4. A personal perspective: I have spent the past twenty years going to church more or less every Sunday and contributing to the church's liturgical life as a musician. I have played or sung at scores of weddings and thousands of church services; yet the one day I am not currently permitted to spend in church, and indeed the one day that the church is actively fighting against allowing me to spend in church, is the one when I make a public profession of love and commitment to my partner of ten years. And I know that many others in the church are in the same position.

5. The CofE is deliberately muddying the waters by claiming that these changes threaten the church's right to officiate heterosexual marriages. This is also manifestly untrue. There are adequate protections of religious liberty in respect of marriage, as is demonstrated by the fact that the CofE is permitted to refuse to marry divorcees in particular churches, if the parish priest chooses. On the contrary, the only legal problem is likely to be caused by law which does not allow religious organisations the option of offering these ceremonies if they want to; moreover, that is the real threat to religious liberty.

If our love were but more simple...

Elton in Kiev   (1.7.12)

There are a number of pernicious sideshows in the debate over gay marriage. One of them is this.

A commenter on Elton John's welcome article about the threat of repressive anti-gay legislation in the Ukraine asks this question: "Are there any other issues or injustices or social problems anywhere on the planet that you think are important or is this it?" I take the message of this question to be: why are you so obsessed with the treatment of gay people, when there are bigger problems in the world? And the implication seems to be that nobody should speak out about any injustice unless they speak out about all of them. It wouldn't require Alan Turing to compute that (given the mortal limitations of all human beings) if we all followed this maxim, no injustice would be challenged, ever.

There is also a subtext to this kind of reaction, which is not, of course, restricted to Elton John's article. There is a fairly common view that gay people speak out about their situation not out of a sense of justice, but because they have an interest in obtaining greater legal rights. Well, it's certainly true that we do indeed have an interest in obtaining equal civil rights, of which access to the institution of marriage is one. But our interest in these rights is not the justification for claiming them. The justification is, as Elton John says, a moral principle of justice: that all human beings are deserving of equality.

I also wonder whether those who propound such objections to the campaign for equal marriage would hold to their view in the case of racial discrimination. Were black people wrong to speak out against the ban on mixed-race marriage, simply because there were bigger problems in the world? Or were slaves wrong to seek freedom, simply because they had a personal interest in obtaining it? I hope the answers, even to CiF trolls, would be obvious; and hope springs eternal.

Sanctimony and suicide   (20.3.12)

There is a truly appalling article written by Francis Phillips in this week's Catholic Herald. It concerns the case of Tony Nicklinson. He has locked-in syndrome, a permanent condition in which the mind is fully functional but the body is completely paralysed, except for eye movements. Nicklinson has been given leave to pursue a case which, if successful, might establish a case law precedent for euthanasia in such extreme cases.

Now, the moral arguments against euthanasia are serious and powerful ones. Phillips explains a couple of them in her article: they could be summarised thus: although some people's lives are truly terrible, countervailing moral considerations mean we must preserve the prohibition on euthanasia absolutely. This is a reasonable view.

What is not reasonable -- indeed what is downright hubristic, arrogant and offensive -- is Phillips' self-serving suggestion that she has any idea what Tony Nicklinson is going through. He describes his life as "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable". I occasionally feel like being euthanised if I have a long day at work -- so how on earth could such lucky able-bodied people as me and Francis Phillips understand this man's experience? And yet Phillips says that all Mr Nicklinson really needs is more Christians around him:

The only response to cases like Mr Nicklinson's, where sufferers and their families are in the grip of despair and see death as the only solution, is the Christian one: to show them, as L'Arche communities try to do and as my brother James explained, that "these seeming disasters should be seen as a wake-up call, summoning a community of friendship around the weakest person, in the realisation that we are not merely individuals but are interdependent on one another. This means that if one of us is touched by disaster, we are all touched. No man is an island. This is what mutual solidarity means, for weakness will come to us all in the end. And the amazing thing is that this can become a place of joy, a place that brings new life and new hope." I would love Mr Nicklinson and his family to know this message: there is an alternative to despair.

Of course it would be a great thing if Tony Nicklinson were able to find a life without despair. But I think a better place for him to start in pursuit of such an end would be to avoid the sanctimony of this particular columnist.

Pastoral hypocrisy   (11.3.12)

Today a "pastoral" letter was read to Catholic congregations in England and Wales. You'd think, given that this is a response to proposals about gay marriage, that the archbishops could have brought themselves to use the word "gay", or to acknowledge gay relationships in some way, while maintaining their view that marriage should not include them. But sadly, what Catholic congregations got this morning was:

In putting before you these thoughts about why marriage is so important, we also want to recognise the experience of those who have suffered the pain of bereavement or relationship breakdown and their contribution to the Church and society. Many provide a remarkable example of courage and fidelity. Many strive to make the best out of difficult and complex situations. We hope that they are always welcomed and helped to feel valued members of our parish communities.

So the Archbishops find time to praise the contribution of those whose heterosexual marriages have failed. Wouldn't this have been a moment also to acknowledge that gay people daily "make the best out of difficult and complex situations"? And to reiterate that, whatever the church's doctrine on sexuality, gay people should also "always be welcomed and helped to feel valued members of our parish communities"? And that thousands of gay people in this country already make "their contribution to the Church and society"? Indeed, many of them are officers of the church.

The archbishops have at least illustrated my point of the other day: the church's pastoral care of gay people is non-existent, even to the point of hypocrisy. (thx, melior)

Gay marriage   (8.3.12)

The arguments for and against gay marriage will be made ad nauseam in the coming years, until such inevitable moment as the law is changed in favour of marriage equality. For this reason I have no intention of rebutting the transparently weak and logically incoherent views of chaps like Keith O'Brien. It makes me think, though, in the midst of the churches' politicking: what perspectives are currently being excluded from the debate?

Writing from the perspective of a gay Christian, the obvious answer is the pastoral perspective. A good friend of mine gave her response to O'Brien's comments the other day, in response to which I made the point that O'Brien's words violate Vatican guidance on the pastoral care of gay people -- guidance drawn up, no less, by the Pope in his former incarnation as Cardinal Ratzinger. That O'Brien's standards for the treatment of gay people fall beneath even those of this conservative Pope is telling.

The fact is that pastoral care for gay people in the church has hitherto been virtually non-existent. Some find themselves in churches that are openly hostile to their sexuality. Others find themselves in churches that are secretly hostile to their sexuality. The lucky few, or perhaps just the selective few, find themselves in churches which actually go out of their way to listen to gay people's experiences. I have never been lucky enough, or selective enough, to experience that.

Something that may not routinely occur to many "ordinary" churchgoers is that gay churchgoers have a unique experience of church, in that they are self-consciously, and conscientiously, attending places of worship which are formally and doctrinally committed to the immorality of the most important thing in their lives -- namely, the relationship with their partner. No straight person, with the exception of Catholic divorcees, really has a comparable experience to this. As a result, churchgoing itself is a kind of protest for many gay Christians -- a protest not against God, but against the church's attempts to diminish their love.

The truth is that the further society moves towards recognising what gay people already know -- the truth, love and value of our relationships -- the more remote the church becomes from our lives. The church, a man-made institution, continues in its refusal to sanctify a love that gay Christians know in their hearts to be already sacred and God-given. I couldn't be more relaxed about the churches' hostility to my life. When gay marriage happens, this country will have taken a step closer towards the Kingdom of God, and the churches will once again find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Somewhere over the rainbow   (4.3.12)

Sunday Sun Sentamu   (26.2.12)

In the Archbishop of York's first column written for Murdoch coin, he states that "Lent is not a time for pointing the finger at others. As Alexander Pope said: 'To err is human, to forgive is divine.' We should always remember that when we point the finger at other people, there are three other fingers pointing back at us! We should rejoice in new life, turning our back on what has gone before." Presumably, then, Sentamu thinks there is no need for a system of justice (at least during Lent)? This is ironic, at the end of a week when Sentamu has quite rightly been pointing his finger at Ugandan politicians. And previously he has quite rightly pointed the finger at Robert Mugabe.

Sentamu well knows that finger-pointing -- standing up to injustice -- is often precisely what must precede forgiveness and reconciliation. I am reminded of something we were taught by the wonderful priest who prepared us for confirmation: we must forgive, but we must not forget. Forgetting, "turning our back on what has gone before", dooms the future to repeating the mistakes of the past.

Unfair Workfare   (25.2.12)

Over the past two years this blog has consistently advocated public-sector work placements for the long-term unemployed. Although not all of the criticisms made of the workfare scheme are apt, it seems to me that the Tesco debacle of recent days does indicate some real problems with the way the scheme is currently run.

  1. I have always imagined it primarily as a scheme to place people in public-sector work placements specifically designed to provide useful training and upskilling, rather than mindless shelf-stacking for opportunistic private sector clients. Making people do the latter does indeed look like it is just providing cheap labour.
  2. If the idea of workfare is at least partly to give people a realistic experience of work, it is important that their experience of pay is also realistic. Those who have been out of work for a long time and are reticent to return to it are hardly going to be encouraged by not being paid.
  3. However -- and this is also an important point -- permanent employees are not going to impressed if unemployed people are being paid the same wages as them while still being entitled to benefits on top of that. Perhaps, therefore, a solution is to top up the pay of people on workfare placements so that their pay plus benefits adds up to roughly the level of an ordinary employee at their place of work.
  4. Much has been made of the fact that these placements are mandatory. Yet one of the main arguments for the existence of a workfare scheme is to remove the perverse incentive to stay out of work. How is this aim to be fulfilled if the placements are not mandatory? (Of course, they are only sort-of mandatory anyway: nobody will be compelled to complete them if they choose not to claim benefits.)
  5. Having said all this, I wonder whether there is really much value in the existence of placements like this in the private sector. If companies are going to be pressured to offer permanent contracts to people on placements, as now seems likely, the placements become little more than a probationary period, only without the protection of the minimum wage or statutory employment rights. This is going to do very little to reduce unemployment, as companies will still have to make exactly the same calculations about how many employees they can afford to pay.
  6. A much-expanded public sector scheme seems more likely to command public confidence, and is therefore more likely to succeed. If private companies want the boost their social responsiblity portfolios, let them sponsor public-sector placements rather than actually providing the work. Placements could then be tailored to the needs of the participants, and they could offer something of more public value than shelf-stacking in the process.

Democracy is not majoritarianism   (21.2.12)

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, in a turn for the hyperbolic, recently described gay marriage as "one of the greatest political power grabs in history". In his view, presumably that moustachioed Austrian just presided over a minor border dispute with Poland.

But there's a more serious point to be made. It has been suggested that gay marriage would be "undemocratic", because it means modifying a social institution for the sake of a small minority of the population. However, such a view shows an incomplete idea of democracy. Neither popular opinion nor the size an interest group defines the democraticness of a policy. For example, let's imagine that we live in a society with high levels of burglary. It is not too hard to imagine a situation where a majority of public opinion favours the death penalty for burglars. That the policy might command such support does not justify it or make it democratic; and that's because democratic values have a further reach than the sphere of public opinion. More importantly than public opinion, democratic values protect the civil rights of even the smallest minorities within a society. If democratic values did not have this reach, we would be living in a utilitarian dystopia.

Conversely, supposing that such a right exists morally, creating a legal right to civil marriage for gay people is a perfectly democratic measure; and it would be so regardless of popular opinion on the matter. Democracy is primarily about safeguarding the equal civil rights of every individual. The minority-of-one is the truest test of democracy's nerve. Representing majority opinion in legislation is a secondary concern.

Love is like a bottle of gin   (19.2.12)

Why the decision not to pardon Alan Turing is wrong   (14.2.12)

This year marks the centenary of Alan Turing's birth. Turing made a key contribution to the British war effort. However, in 1952 he was prosecuted for committing homosexual acts and sentenced to chemical castration by treatment with female hormones. This damaged him physically and psychologically, and he committed suicide two years later. In spite of this, Manchester, the city where he worked, has commemorated Turing by naming roads and buildings after him. Last week, Justice Minister Lord McNally dismissed a motion to pardon Turing in the House of Lords. He stated that

A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence". [...] However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times.

I think the government's decision is wrong, and here's why: the decision fails to recognise the difference between just and unjust law. By way of illustration, consider two examples. In some countries, it is perfectly legal to drive on a motorway at 120mph. In others, it is illegal to drive above 60mph. We do not typically think there is anything intrinsically wrong with one law or the other. That is because, in many instances, there is scope for wide variation in the ways in which just principles are codified in law. Although in this case one country permits what another country prohibits, we do not think of one law as being more "just" than another.

However, some laws do directly violate basic principles of justice. Consider now one country that permits slave labour, and another country that strictly prohibits it. The laws permitting slavery are intrinsically unjust, in that they themselves violate basic principles of justice: rights to liberty, bodily integrity, self-ownership, the fruits of one's own labour, etc. Now suppose that these laws exist not in different countries, but in the same country, only separated by fifty years of legislative reform. The fact that "times have changed" does not make unjust what used to be just. Slavery was always unjust; only a lot of people could not, or would not, see why. Indeed, such legislative reform can only be properly understood, as McNally inadvertently concedes, by accepting that it was the reform of an unjust situation into a (more) just one.

In the case of Alan Turing, his most basic rights were violated -- not only by the laws which unjustly restricted his liberty and punished him for his sexuality, but also by the manner in which he was punished, a manner which caused him direct physical and psychological injury. The law and judicial processes at the time were instruments not of justice, but of injustice. Those who read this far and still find themselves saying "yes, but people thought differently in those days; he should have observed the laws of the day," succumb to moral relativism. Those who were convicted and punished on the basis of demonstrably unjust law should be pardoned -- all of them. It is not about trying "to put right what cannot be put right"; it is about acknowledging, here and now, that what happened to Turing was wrong.

A thought on Ken   (11.2.12)

There was an interesting storm-in-a-teacup this week. In a characteristically informal interview with the New Statesman, Labour's candidate for Mayor of London Ken Livingstone made the following comments:

[The public] should be allowed to know everything, except the nature of private relationships - unless there is hypocrisy, like some Tory MP denouncing homosexuality while they are indulging in it. [...] As soon as Blair got in, if you came out as lesbian or gay you immediately got a job. It was wonderful. [...] You just knew the Tory party was riddled with it, like everywhere else is.

Some took offence at Livingstone's use of the words "indulging" and "riddled". Gay Labour MP Chris Bryant hit out at those criticising Livingstone, saying that "faux outrage turns my stomach". I've no doubt that lots of the outrage was indeed affected for party political purposes. Livingstone has been an excellent supporter of equal rights for gay people, and Peter Tatchell is right to defend him for taking a stand on the issue at a time when it was still unfashionable in the Labour party to do so.

However, Livingstone's choice of terms does indicate something important about the nature of prejudice: namely, that there is no reason why a person cannot passionately believe in the political cause of gay rights while still unconsciously harbouring prejudices about gay people. "Indulging" and "riddled" are negative and pejorative terms, and are remarkable precisely for the fact that they are inconsistent with Livingstone's considered political opinion. The author and poet Sophie Hannah posted on Twitter: "My fridge is riddled with champagne. My shelf is riddled with ace books. My weekend was riddled with fun. Doesn't work, does it, Ken?"

I'm sure that this phenomenon applies in some way to every human being on this earth; but that's no less reason to recognise that many of our prejudices are irrationally and unconsciously held, and manifest in irrational and unconscious ways.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2012   (27.1.12)

Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

Graffiti in Kaunas, Lithuania, where 195,000 of its 210,000 Jews were murdered during World War II.

Impact of disability cuts   (17.1.12)

Polly Toynbee has a good article today highlighting some of the bad aspects of the current welfare reform proposals. It is certainly good to be getting people off incapacity benefit if they are in fact capable of work. But none of the present cuts should be hitting disabled children in need of the support. Indeed, the fact that the coalition government is persisting with these more brutal changes threatens to discredit their broader agenda of welfare reform in the public's mind. "Fairness" was a leitmotif of the 2010 election, and is a quintessential part of the British political consensus. The coalition will have a hard time convincing the public that withdrawing support from the people identified in Toynbee's article is a fair policy while millionaires are still receiving the winter fuel payment.

Jeffrey John may sue   (16.1.12)

Jeffrey John, who was once appointed Bishop of Reading and then forced by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to withdraw from the position, may sue the Church of England for discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. For some time now I have thought that all it would take to undermine the church's status quo on gay clergy (and gay bishops) and on women clergy (and women bishops) is for someone to bring a case against it under the Equality Act 2010. It looks like this might be about to happen.

(related: 1 2 3 4 5)

Ed Osballs   (13.1.12)

I'm confused. All this time I've been moaning about the quality of Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party, and complaining about Ed Balls' apparent belief that the budget deficit and national debt can't hurt him just as long as he stays under the covers. And, observing these tiresome rants, dear reader, I would have forgiven you for thinking, "But at least he's not George Osborne!" And you would have been right.

Until tonight that is. For he has become Ed Osballs:

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has moved to challenge accusations that Labour is not credible on the economy by telling the public sector unions that he endorses George Osborne's public sector pay freeze until the end of the parliament, and that he accepts every spending cut being imposed by the Conservatives.

Surely this Labour leadership can't survive until 2015?

TED talk on economic inequality   (12.1.12)

And, further to my previous post, if you're wondering why pay inequality is such a bad thing, consider this:

Sacrificial sick   (12.1.12)

The Economist's leader writer this week misses the point even more spectacularly than s/he thinks British politicans do. S/he claims that, whenever the economy hits rough times, politicians and voters alike make scapegoats of the highly-paid. Of course, the analogy of sending a goat into the wilderness doesn't really make sense in this context. It would make more sense to describe the government's policy towards the sick as "scapegoating", since according to sections of the draft Welfare Reform Bill, it is the sick whose stake in society is in danger of being revoked -- not those in receipt of £10m salaries.

But I digress. The leader writer misses the point because s/he seems to think that there are no issues of justice intrinsic to the level of pay inequality in a society. This might be a plausible position if we were a society of goats; but we are a society of human beings, and we tend to think that individual human beings have certain legitimate claims on the rest of society in respect of distributive justice. At a time when the country is, we are told, so fiscally stretched that £25/week payments must apparently be removed from disabled young people incapable of work, it is meaningful as a matter of instrinsic justice to query whether the earnings of the very rich are morally acceptable. The Economist considers only their economic expediency (a legitimate, but not a comprehensive, consideration).

That's my first point. My second is this: even if we accept there is a problem with high levels of pay inequality (and I do), it does not follow necessarily that pay need be constrained by corporate governance, or by some statutory limitation on pay. If there is something wrong with the amount people are earning, it would be fairer to constrain pay through the tax system. The 50% tax band currently does that. Indeed (notwithstanding that legitimate consideration of economic expediency) it would be preferable if the top rate was higher still.

No contributions please, we're British   (12.1.12)

I'm glad that offending parts of the Welfare Reform Bill have been rejected by the Lords today. The government had proposed to revoke from a section of the disabled population their entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, the new name for Incapacity Benefit). However, there does seem to be a lot of confused politicians around at the moment. For instance, the BBC News article reports that

Welfare Minister Lord Freud said it was unfair for a young person to continue to get a contributory benefit without having "paid in" - even if they were to inherit a lot of money. He estimated that 90% of those affected by the change would still get the income-related part of ESA.

If the BBC have faithfully paraphrased Lord Freud, this just seems like a piece of question-begging. It seems to me that one of the core issues that was at stake during this debate was precisely whether ESA should be a contributory benefit or not. And the moral intuitions of many in the Lords have been such that someone's entitlement to state support in the event of injury or disability should not depend on their historic contributions.

I am even more confused by the comments of Liam Byrne (Labour's Shadow Welfare Minister). Only last week he was singing the praises of the contributory principle, indeed describing how it must be a "building block" of the welfare system. Today he seems to have forgotten last week's beliefs:

"The government has been defeated because quite simply they tried to cross the basic line of British decency," shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne said. "For months Labour has been determined to stop this cruel attack on cancer patients in its tracks. And today the House of Lords agreed."

Answers on a postcard.

Irwell   (11.1.12)

Irwell drifting, laps, slaps
Under and over and out.

This arch is adjacency and solitude,
A dignity and a dying and
A walk considered but untaken.

What difference in one moment!

So to love, a benefactor
No bridge can ever know,
Save through the storm surge
Which destroys it

Miliband now to the left of Polly Filla   (10.1.12)

There is an amazing sight in The Guardian today. You must go and see it for yourself, because this is not something that happens often. Brace yourself. Polly Toynbee (she of the Tuscany holiday home, £2300-a-week salary, and hedge-fund-investing Guardian Media Group) has articulated a thought that not only puts her in direct, if delayed, concordance with Newfred; but also places her to the right of Ed Miliband in apparently opposing some universal benefits:

Hard choices for how we tax and spend need social democratic priorities: we are not all in it together when I get un-means-tested winter fuel payments, free travel and heavy pension tax relief with no perceptible cuts.

I hope that, true to form, Polly will write a column tomorrow completely contradicting today's. I will then be able to revert to the far more comfortable position of disagreeing with everything she says.

Carol Ann Duffy's "Stephen Lawrence"   (7.1.12)

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has written a poem following the conviction of two of Stephen Lawrence's killers. I pray that "love's just blade" will soon cut down his other assailants.

DUEMA   (7.1.12)

Labour calls for "responsible capitalism", apparently. This is, claims Ed Miliband, the summation of all the policy themes of his leadership hitherto. It's not really much, is it? What is there in this wannabe meme that anybody could possible disagree with? Will anyone be coming out in defence of "irresponsible capitalism"? Well, perhaps the Labour administration of 1997-2010, under whose watchful eye executive pay ran out of control, as did the budget deficit, financial regulation and all the rest of it.

This was a bad week for Miliband. An organisation once set up in his support, the "Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband Association", recently disbanded following another of his juvenile performances at PMQs. To add insult to injury, right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes staked a claim to the Association, immediately renaming it the "Don't Unseat Ed Miliband Association".

George Formby and more   (7.1.12)

There's a host of great things on TV at the moment. I was captivated by Great Expectations over the holidays, partly thanks to the beautiful Mr Booth. Then there's a thing on BBC Four about the grammar school system, which until it was decimated by successive governments of every hue (although Mr Blair closed down more than Mrs Thatcher), was one of the very few sources of upward mobility in British society.

And there's Armando Iannucci on Dickens, and Frank Skinner on the wonderful George Formby. Formby's wife and manager Beryl Ingham once slapped South African National Party leader Daniel Francois Malan, who later introduced Apartheid, and said: "Why don't you piss off you horrible little man?" At the time, Formby and Ingham were being deported from South Africa for performing to unsegregated and black audiences. Sadly, the (black) South African tour organiser was shot shortly after their departure. (thx s)

Making work pay   (5.1.12)

"When asked by Michael Parkinson how he kept his band together and motivated, Duke Ellington replied: 'I have this method – I find it helps if I give them money.'" (via)

Contributing poorly   (3.1.12)

It is truly remarkable that the Labour party can for so long have laboured under the burden of a flawed welfare policy, review it, and come out with something different but just as bad. Labour's thirteen years in power left the welfare system in the kind of bureaucratic shambles that can see those on six figure salaries sub-letting "their" council houses, people receiving more in housing benefit than many are paid in their jobs, levels of unemployment benefit that create a 90% marginal tax rate when moving into work, and so on and so forth.

So they were right to review it. But the stuff that Liam Byrne is apparently suggesting by way of improvement is just as pernicious. He echoes some of the "common-sense" points of Frank Field in calling for welfare payments to correlate somehow with individual contributions. This is not an altogether foolish idea, and it would certainly make some sense for certain benefits, most obviously unemployment benefit. Unfortunately, the common sense fails in other areas. If welfare is to correlate with contributions as a general principle, where does that leave payments for those who cannot work through injury or disability? Where does it leave support for the children of those who have not contributed to the system? Should the rich get "more" out of the welfare system because they have contributed more? Should those on low incomes be entitled to fewer NHS services than those on higher incomes? It would also risk undermining any chance the welfare system has of redistributing wealth more evenly across society -- a fact which makes the policy a socially- and class- conservative one.

I should say that there are positive things about the report. For instance, Byrne has endorsed the policy I have for two years been imploring the coalition government to make its own. I learn now that it was in fact one of Beveridge's original principles: "Unemployment benefit after a certain period should be conditional upon attendance at a work or training centre." (Beveridge, incidentally, was a liberal.)

However, the problems above add up to a straightforward conclusion: that Byrne is wrong to say that the contributory principle should be a "building block" of the welfare state. It has its place, but the keystone of the system should be justice: providing a just standard of life to people in the light of their needs and circumstances. Often, the contribution principle would lead to provision of exactly the opposite. This, though is a far more nuanced discussion, and one in which the Labour party is currently unaccustomed to engaging.

Hostility to the young   (1.1.12)

Rowan Williams is spot on in his new year message:

"When you see the gifts [young people] can offer, the energy that can be released when they feel safe and loved, you see what a tragedy we so often allow to happen," he said.

"Look at the work done by groups like the Children's Society or by the astonishing network of Kids' Company here in London, and you see what can be done to wake up that energy and let it flourish for everyone's good."

"And a good new year's resolution might be to think what you can do locally to support facilities for young people, to support opportunities for counselling and learning and enjoyment in a safe environment.

"And above all, perhaps we should just be asking how we make friends with our younger fellow citizens - for the sake of our happiness as well as theirs."

Unfortunately, the churches suffer from one of the more ambivalent records in society in respect of valuing and nurturing young people. It is, of course, only us adults who are responsible for this state of affairs. In twenty years' experience of churches and cathedrals, I have probably seen both the best and worst of the church's practices: on the one hand, the church that creates opportunities for friendship and fellowship through scouts and guides, choirs and youth clubs; on the other hand, the church that turns away teenagers it doesn't like the look of while parroting the most sweeping tabloid nonsense about "the young". The difference, in short, between those who regard the church as "a house of prayer for all people", and those who think the church is a fief to be locked away, except in the pursuit of its own ends.

Newfred is where Andrew Wilshere blogs about
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