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The Golden Rule

I rarely, if ever, discuss religion, but the subject came up in a big way the other day and I decided once and for all, to tell my story. Everything in this story is true and it is only my experience and my opinions. I do not wish to offend anyone’s sensibilities and I am not looking for a debate, or a lesson. As the cliché goes, “It is what it is.”

I was told as a child that my father (full-blooded Italian) was Catholic and my mother (full-blooded hillbilly from Arkansas) was Lutheran. Back then when filling out school paperwork or any other identifying paperwork for that matter, one line was for “religion”. My mother always entered a “P” on that line for me. Questioning this, I was told that I was a Protestant. Okay, so then I knew I was adopted and a Protestant. After hearing something vague about Protestants fighting the British in Ireland, I deduced that because I was part Irish, I must indeed be Protestant… check.

We never went to church. My mother once explained it to me that since she and my father were different religions and that they adopted me sometime after my first year of life, they didn’t want to baptize me; preferring to take the rather progressive stance (or so I thought) of letting me choose what I wanted to be when I grew up. Telling this story to my BFF (who happens to be Born Again Christian and believes in the Rapture), she has gently explained to me that children will never choose on their own if they have no foundation or religious teaching on which to build. Oops.Hand holding cross - click for photo credit

Growing up in Los Angeles surrounded by everything Mexican, I learned to love the people and the food and also gleaned my first knowledge of the Catholic faith. Sara, our neighbor often took me along with her son Mark when they went to church or on outings to Disneyland or the beach or any of the other cool things to do as a native of Southern California. In the 60’s neighborhoods were like that…everyone’s mom was a part of the village that cared for and watched over us. (Being an only child, I got to go to Disney a lot). Usually Sunday would be church, then straight to the beach. This is what I learned:

The service was in Latin so I learned to watch everyone else and stand, sit, kneel, stand and sit again. I dutifully endured the ritual of communion, understanding this somehow cleaned up all the bad stuff one did (they called it SIN) each week. It sort of wiped the slate clean for another 7 days. After church we would drive to the beach where Mark and I were “watched” by Sara’s niece while she strolled up the beach to the nearby hotel and disappeared for a couple of hours. The “niece” was a girl maybe 14 years old who taught me my first lesson about make-up: you must re-apply your jet black mascara at least once every 30 minutes and add another layer of Johnson’s Baby Oil with the same frequency. The darker your arms and legs the better, and the thicker and clumpier your eyelashes, the more grown up and beautiful you looked. I think she also smoked cigarettes which was also very grown up and cool-looking. I learned years later that Sara had been cheating on her husband, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him sort of lump-like whenever I saw him at their house. He had terrible sleep apnea which was kind of scary as a kid to be sitting in their den watching TV and all of a sudden the dad would be snoring. Those weekly visits to the beach were more for her benefit than ours and I then understood why it was necessary for her to have her weekly “sin-cleansing”. Catholicism…check.

My mother let me go with a friend and her family at age 6 to a sleep-away camp  that turned out to be a bible thumping holy roller circus where we had craft time and meals in between religious services. Nightly they would preach and holler until very late in the evening. I remember a lady spoke up one night as my friend and I were practically falling over on our bench asking if the younger children could be dismissed to go to bed, that 10:00 was much too late for such small children to be up. One night, the preacher screamed on and on beseeching those of us who wanted to be “saved” to raise our hands while he wailed. I thought this over and figured if I could be “washed clean” of all my “sins” for the past 6 years, that would be a good thing. I could start fresh and all the times I lied to my mom or sneaked goodies out of the kitchen would be wiped away and I could start my life anew. I gulped, raised my hand and was ushered into a line of people tall and small and eventually made my way to the front of the huge cabin in the religiously confusing mountain woods. I think the man touched my head, said something or other and it was done. I went to the bunks that night feeling happy, fresh and privileged about something or other. I don’t think I ever told my mom about the church-y part of this summer camp, but I never begged her to let me go to another one.  Baptists…check.

After giving birth to my first child, I recall another friend explain her take on baptism. She said that because babies were conceived from an act of “sin”, that they would not go to heaven if they died before they were baptised and thus “cleansed” of this “sin”. Speaking solely for myself (and my husband, upon whom I thrust all of my opinions), I could not conceive of a God that wouldn’t take innocent babies into heaven. When he was three months old, we were gifted a trip to the ritzy suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where we shared our new son with his paternal grandparents for the very first time. Unbeknownst to me, Mother Dearest had arranged for my son to be baptized into their Presbyterian church. I was informed of this by my well-meaning husband on the eve of the upcoming event. Out of earshot of Mother Dearest I refused, citing my opinion that this would indeed be merely a ritual to appease his parents and would be virtually meaningless to us; and besides, if we really wanted to do this, wouldn’t it make more sense to have it in our city, surrounded  with our own friends, pick Godparents, etc?. We did go to church with his parents the next day and nothing was ever said directly to me. The service was similar to others I had attended over the years and at least they spoke English. Later that evening, Mother Dearest threw a lavish dinner party for swells of her friends who each arrived with lovely, expensive, and mostly useless gifts for our baby. (Really, does anyone ever use that sterling silver baby cup, suitable for engraving but wasn’t because it was bought on the fly and no one really knew the baby’s name anyway?) I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and back then I really wasn’t. It was very nice of all of these people to give us pretty things for our son; oh, and I loved the limited edition Beatrix Potter porcelain cup that was too expensive to use…crap, there I go again.

This attitude is something that developed in me a full six years after that swanky party. Six years!

We were sitting around the Thanksgiving table, Mother Dearest, her mom and her daughter. The men had since retired to the living room for man talk, football, and avoidance of dirty dishes. At least there was the Almaden white wine that was always a staple at these food related events. The woman talk had been bromidic as usual when, without warning, this bolt of lightning  produced a six year old elephant that had been lurking in the room:  “And Debbie, I’ll NEVER forgive you for the way you embarrassed and humiliated me when we were going to have [the baby] christened.” (WTF?) “What are you talking about?” She proceeded to tell me that she had meticulously arranged this glorious day that had begun with a christening and ended with a dinner party in the baby’s honour and all of her friends were there and they brought me gifts and the priest was brand new and she was so humiliated and I was awful and extremely thoughtless…no one else in the room spoke at all. I was aghast. Where the hell did that come from? My back against the elephant, I parried, “I cannot believe you would have gone through all of that without asking my permission or informing me at all. If we had wanted to baptize our baby, we would have done so at home, with our friends, Godparents, whatever. I cannot believe in a God that wouldn’t take a baby into heaven just because the mother didn’t believe in this ritual. Of all the religions I have studied in school, most of them seem kind of hypocritical to me. Do you really think this would happen?” I could not believe my ears when I heard her response… “I’m just saying it doesn’t hurt to cover all of your bases.”

Cover all of my bases?


Presbyterian, (Mother Dearest style)…check.

That night I did tell her that of all the religions we explored in that class, the one that made a lot of sense to me was Judaism. She was not amused.

I’ve lived my life believing in the Golden Rule and I’ve had a couple of very close calls that cannot be explained away in terms of coincidence. The only thing that saved me one night was what had to be a Guardian Angel.

What do I really believe? That’s a conversation I don’t have with many people, but I will tell you that I’ve arranged one thing with my BFF…if/when the Rapture comes, she’s letting me have her condo.

Born Again…check.                    

Turning Forty …

A recurring topic of conversation among a number of friends recently has been around turning 40.  Is the age just about the number, or does it mean more than that?

For me personally, the number itself isn’t that important.  I’m 38 now; one day later this month I’ll wake up and I’ll be 39 … but nothing will have changed.  My friends who turn 40 this year will be 39 until the clock turns to midnight on their birthday and in a split second, they’ll be 40 … but nothing will have changed.  Their bodies won’t suddenly morph into something else, their lives won’t change, there is no concrete template for what a 40 year old person should be … everything will still be the same.

Or will it … ?Turning Forty

I think that for some people, their beliefs around what it means to be a particular age really do cause them to change once they approach that particular birthday.  If someone believes that turning 40 labels them as middle-aged, and for them, ‘middle-aged’ has certain behaviours or ways of being attached to it, then they’ll no doubt rapidly change.  For those people who still believe that ‘life begins at 40,’ then they’re more likely to enjoy entering their fifth decade and make the most of the life they’re living; it might even give them permission to begin enjoying life.

Forty, as an age, does carry some significance however.  It’s near enough the mid-point of average age expectancy.  People tend to have established their careers or have some career experience behind them along with families, marriages, divorces and significant deaths.  By 40, people do have a lot of life experience behind them and it can be a time to reflect on the years that have been lived and to evaluate life up until that point.  It’s a time by which childhood ambitions have maybe been fulfilled or recognised as childish dreams.  Or it can be a time to take stock of life and to make plans for the ambitions yet to be fulfilled.  And this is where the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’ (which it is said can take place anytime between 35 and 55) steps in.

In Jungian terms, the mid-life transition is simply part of the maturation and individuation process that we all experience as we become more true to our inner selves.  And for me, this is an exciting, sometimes scary, and  important part of our life’s journey.  It’s not necessarily a comfortable process, but it can be hugely rewarding as the ego is left behind and one’s Self or Soul comes to the fore.

For me 40 is an exciting age and people are at such different life stages.  Some people have 1, 2 or more marriages behind them whilst some still remain single. Some people have grown up children, whilst others are still raising theirs, and even others, have yet to have their children.  Some people have made their name in their career; others are still climbing their particular ladder, changing careers, or simply happy where they are.

It’s an age at which we’ve experienced a lot, have learned a lot, and have made many mistakes.  But there’s still potentially a lot of life yet to be lived.  And as we take the lessons and learnings from our first forty years in this life forward into the future, we have the potential to create our own unique greatness and individuality.

Everyone is unique.  Everyone’s life experience is unique.  And so, everyone’s experience of turning 40 is unique.  I’ve enjoyed being in my thirties, and I intend to make the most of this decade’s final year, but I’m also looking forward to turning 40.  For me, it’s the year I hope to complete my PhD and that will hopefully be an opening to a whole new world for me.  And at 40, I hopefully, have lots of years ahead of me to continue developing my skills and knowledge and sharing that information in many forms for the benefit of others.

For myself, my age is just a numeric symbol of how many years I’ve been alive.  It’s a number that has no other meaning …

 Wishing you all a happy 40th birthday, whenever it happens, and whatever it means …

Dreams of Freedom and Pepper Spray

On January 21st 1971, Timothy Leary was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the possession of two joints of marijuana. Soon after, an additional 10 years were added for an earlier conviction, which the American Supreme Court had quashed once before when he had been tried under an unconstitutional tax law. The conviction for that previous offence, for an incredibly small amount, was 30 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

Leary had been described as, “the most dangerous man in America,” by Richard Nixon. Leary, then a prominent psychologist, had never murdered a single person, nor had he directly incited any violence. He had just really loved LSD, and had been devoted to researching ways in which it could be used in therapy to treat long-term psychological problems. One of the areas they looked at was anti-social behaviour in criminals. At the same time, similar testing was being done by Elliott Barker. Leary and Barker had initial successes, but the long-term results suggested that some criminals, particularly those with psychopathic traits, were merely taught how to conceal the coldness within them whilst acting out human emotions for the benefit of those around them.

However, Leary lived at a time before these long-term results became obvious, and he genuinely believed in the therapeutic uses of hallucinogens. When the US government outlawed them, Leary became an advocate for their decriminalisation, and their use in treating patients with mental, and sometimes physical, disorders. Indeed, tests on various banned substances are today showing potentially positive results: LSD treatment in therapy has resumed in Switzerland, and MDMA has shown positive results when used on suffers of Parkinson’s disease. 

However, at a time when Charles Manson had his family murdering people, Ted Bundy was responsible for the deaths of college age girls, and the Zodiac Killer was most active, it was Leary that right-wing politician Richard Nixon described as the “most dangerous man in America”.

Why? There were three reasons.

Firstly, Leary popularised the saying, “think for yourself and question authority.” That same ideology was the one that eventually led to the Watergate Scandal, and the end of Nixon’s presidency, so he would be right to fear it.

Second of all, it was the beginning of the Establishment’s long running failure to fight a war against drugs. The real reason those in power so feared the drugs of that age was because what represented a quiet revolution of bands and free-love and daisies-in-your-hair, also represented a shedding of the kind of proper, mannered restraint that the right-wing saw as a moral obligation. To them, it was every Freudian-nightmare about the dark-undercurrent that dominates the subconscious mind of the masses – it was the mob breaking free of their shackles. In much the same way that Julian Assange is the current face of an information revolution, Leary was the face of a psychological revolution. “Think for yourself and question authority.”

The third reason was much, much more insidious, and seems like it comes from the realms of conspiracy theory, but was actually the subject of a public apology from Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford. The MK-Ultra project was designed to test the use of hallucinogens (specifically the same Lysergic-Acid Diethalymide-25 created by Albert Hoffman and used by Timothy Leary) in an attempt to manipulate the brain for the benefit of the CIA. It resulted in at least one death.

However, at the same time that the CIA wanted to exploit this drug, the Establishment was doing its best to slander Timothy Leary, and then lock him away using a sentence far beyond the maximum permitted sentence for the crime he had committed.

And they would have succeeded, too, had it not been for the fact that the Establishment of that time was as stupid as it was brutally criminal. The tests administered to Leary to rate his psychological condition, and determine whether he would spend the next twenty years in a minimum- or maximum-security prison, had been written by Leary himself. Leary decided that, not being The A-Team, he would go the maximum-security route. He promptly escaped, and was smuggled out of the country, eventually ending up in Switzerland. Timothy Leary Arrested by two policemen

Leary was eventually returned to America, where a judge commented that, “If he is allowed to travel freely, he will speak publicly and spread his ideas.” In 1976, three years after his recapture, he was released. Whilst in prison, he told notoriously-hard-to-define writer Robert Anton Wilson that he believed he had more freedom whilst imprisoned than most people had on the outside. To Leary, the idea of freedom was not physical, but mental.

Wilson had his own revelation about freedom during a sit-in at a segregated barber-shop. The shop’s owner refused to serve black customers, and so those in the local community who were aware of the importance in fighting racial segregation decided to sit-in his shop. Eventually, the police were called, and the protesters, rather than the racist barber, were arrested. Wilson later commented that it showed him that to the Establishment, even your own body is not yours, but theirs, to do with what they want.

These topics rest forefront in my mind at the moment not because of Julian Assange, who was mentioned earlier, or because of the economic hardships robbing so many people of their own freedoms, or because of the reaction to the strikes by public sector workers (told that they should feel grateful to receive less for more, in a staggering reversal of the very nature of capitalism). No, the events described above are at the forefront of my mind because of the Establishment reaction to the Occupy movement, especially in America.

Occupy is said to have started on Wall Street, and in San Francisco this past September, but the date the movement began on, and its original location, are less important than the ideas it claims to represent. These ideas are varied, but the are predominantly about a form of responsible capitalism. Not anti-capitalism, as if so often claimed, but responsible capitalism. Responsible capitalism is, of course, about as anti-capitalist as you can get to the current Establishment.

The current Establishment is against any form of regulation, or protection for the general public, from the forces of the market. As was mentioned earlier, one of the great fears of the Establishment for most of the last century and the start of this one has been the dark subconscious desires of the masses, so often referred to in the common lexicon as “the mob mentality”. The war to control this, to manage by consent, has been at the centre of modern political thinking. However, when the masses seem to turn on the Establishment, or any part of their dominant ideology, management by consent becomes management by terror. (Of course, the exception to this is when the dominant ideology is challenged by the market, such as the events of Black Wednesday here in the UK, and the politicians learn who really has their hand on the whip.)

It is tragic, rather than ironic, that those in positions of power cannot see the direct correlation between the gunning-down of protesters during the Arab Spring, and the brutal evictions across America. Those who believed, like Leary, that you should, “think for yourself and question authority” are now finding themselves, like Wilson, learning that even their own freedoms will be denied them should they act out in a way considered to be against the beliefs of the Establishment.

In this sense, it makes a mockery of democracy, but to understand democracy you have to understand the simplistic ideas of democracy which a government will allow, verses the reality of democracy that we have been denied all our lives.

The simplistic form of democracy is as follows: each person, regardless of their ignorance, is invited to vote after a period in which they are bombarded by propaganda controlled by the dominant political classes and those who own the media.

In Leary’s instance, the dominant voices were the likes of Richard Nixon and his then media consultant, now Fox News President, Roger Ailes.

Now-a-days, it is the likes of Ailes (still), Rupert Murdoch and Goldman Sachs.

In this model, you have only as much power as the amount of information they allow you to have. This is why the likes of Occupy, Anonymous and Wikileaks terrify the current Establishment, as they are weakening the level of information control they have over the public, and ruining the illusion of a society that is “in this together”. Occupy London tent slogan- real democracy now

The other model of democracy is one we will likely never see, but is the one that most of the counter-culture has tried to popularise in one way or another since the term was first coined, and perhaps back to Adam Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati, and perhaps even back to Jesus (if you believe in him or not, the important thing here is the message, not whether or not he existed).

It goes as follows: each person is expected to learn as much as they can about what they are required to vote on, and is relied upon to make an informed choice about what they have learned through both mainstream and more marginalised means of delivering information. Or, arming yourself with information, if you will.

In this way, the truth about Occupy is that it is an idealised form of democracy taking on a corrupt, manipulative form of democracy. And, just as Leary was punished because they couldn’t allow him to spread his message, so the evictions and the restriction of media coverage were set up to muddy the true message of the protest: a need for economic openness.

There have been many commentators that have disputed this message. One of the most spurious arguments came from Louise Mensch, MP, who, on Have I Got News For You, commented that they can’t have an i-Phone and a Starbucks coffee and be against capitalism. This was later followed up by comic book writer Frank Miller, who, like Nixon perverting Leary’s advocacy of LSD-use, sought to write off the Occupy movement as a group of “liars, thieves and rapists.” This is to be expected. After all, when someone comes into contact with something they can’t comprehend or understand, they often say something stupid. (Another example would be David Cameron’s attempts, today, to turn the word, “leftist”, into an insult.) If a UFO made out of liquid that bent at angles our eyes were not able to fully see landed outside your house, you would either misunderstand what you had seen, or you would act in fear.

The lesson to be taken from all this is a simple one, though: the Establishment has always acted in the same way towards ideas it considers dangerous, regardless of how dangerous those ideas are. The true heroes of recent memory are not usually those who agreed to go and be shot at in a war, in exchange for financial remuneration, but those who gave up their time to be beaten, maced, shot at, killed, and abused in public because they stood up for their beliefs against an Establishment that neither cares to listen, nor cares for the numerous bones that are cracked under their oppressive heal. There is no guarantee that you will be proven right, and there is no guarantee that you will be remembered as a hero. But, when the Establishment send in hired goon squads, or hand down sentences far exceeding what is required by law, it is time to admit that something has gone wrong with our democracy.

Xenophobia in the British press

Xenophobia is rampant in the British press, and particularly in the Daily Mail.

I have always refrained from writing about Richard Littlejohn basically because I don’t know where to start. I tend to try and avoid his awful column because for one thing, I like to look after my blood pressure, and for another thing I am never quite sure if he is real. I mean, is he not some sick parody the Daily Mail have concocted for us to make us froth at the mouth?


But there comes a point when even sticking both fingers in my ears and shouting “la la la” isn’t enough to help me switch off from something he has written.

Will just go back a step.

The Daily Mail is well known for being phobic about most things:Richard Littlejohn writes for the Daily Mail about how frustrated he is.  Y'know, with women and lefties and that.

-pretty much anything that a woman does;


-socialists and communists and anything else that can be construed as being slightly left wing;

-people who make use of the welfare state and claim benefits of almost any kind;


…should I go on?

The Express is similar – I smiled to see that they believe themselves to be leading a “crusade” against the EU.   I wonder if they would be so willing to use this word so lightly if they revised their history.

The Daily Mail hates France, unless they are talking about the parts the middle class expats enjoy.  Its columnists like to refer to Sarkozy as a dwarf like Napoleon and they like to go on, and on, about how the French surrendered during the war.   No, not the recent wars.   We’re talking about the one which finished well over 60 years ago.   They have recently taken up German bashing too.

Stupid rant, song or poem by Richard Littlejohn from the Daily Mail

But on the 18th November Richard Littlejohn surpassed himself, writing a very bad rhyme about both the French and Germans, but mainly the Germans.   Here it is if you can stomach it.   It is accompanied by a shocking cartoon, depicting Merkel among others goose-stepping.   Basically inferring, under a veil of humour, that the Germans and EU are akin to the Nazis.

I have had to re-read it several times, which has been so painful on very many levels.   I don’t understand how people can agree with him, and I don’t understand how he got paid to write such inflammatory crap.  Although it’s supposed to be humour there is a very nasty undertone.   Glee at economic worries?   Veiled references to the war?   Incitement of hatred, and fear of our neighbours?   Tick tick tick.

I am actually full of admiration for Germany.   Not at all for what happened during the war, of course, but how they have rebuilt themselves since.   I was in Frankfurt recently – stayed overnight, had dinner at a restaurant and used the airport.   I was so impressed, once again, with the people and the efficiency.   They are so welcoming, so kind.   One bloke on the bus appointed himself our tourist guide,  although he didn’t speak brilliant English – he just wanted to point out the things he was proud of.   Isn’t that great?

Another guy struck up conversation in the restaurant – he was stuck overnight with his tour group as his flight was cancelled.   Did he complain?   No, he just took it in his stride.   No-one else in the group was heard to complain either.   They just raised their eyebrows and laughed it off.   It was refreshing.   Can you imagine the grumps in a British airport hotel if a large group of people were stuck there when they wanted to be in Cuba?

So why is the press so anxious to stir up not so recent history and encourage its readers to hate, or be fearful, of our nearest neighbours?   What is the point?   Who does it help?   And why oh why are they allowed to print such inflammatory stuff?   Free press yes.   Racist press, no thanks.   The same article adapted to be about a minority group would be quite rightly slammed across the board.

So why is it still acceptable to be racist against the Germans and French?   Covering up racism with a light sheen of humour (though if anyone really finds it funny then I will despair of my mother country) is wrong.
Living in France as I do, it is when articles like this come out that I am ashamed to be British, because thanks to the world wide web these types of articles are picked up on and translated, and even in France when journalists mention the Daily Mail they do so with a sneer.   The fact that it is such a popular website does nothing for our already pretty tarnished reputation abroad – they are starting to believe that we are all like that, but last time I looked Britain and its people are tolerant and welcoming.

The Daily Mail likes to huff and puff about ‘political correctness gone mad’.   Their recent articles on Europe show that they believe that vile rants about our allies are acceptable and to be encouraged.   I hope the rest of the country isn’t listening to them,  because articles such as this one by Richard Littlejohn aren’t politically incorrect (said with a smile and a wink).   They are inflammatory, racist and bigoted.

We have a lot to learn from our European neighbours.   It appears that tolerance is one thing.   And, if this is considered humour, I would say that Richard Littlejohn could learn something about sense of humour from the Germans.

Why I’m a Feminist

I was a student in 1980s Manchester, hotbed of student activism. And at West Berlin’s Free University, incubator of student radicalism. Feminism was a cool lifestyle choice, though of course there was far more behind it. A rapist terrorised female students in my first year at Manchester. Women refugees spoke of their persecution in their home countries. But we marched together to reclaim the night, I volunteered on student helplines, and there was a palpable shared sense of injustice and of community acting to redress wrongs.

Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first timFeminism is the radical notion that women are people Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.

And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.

These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.

Shooting Stitchthread

My best friend Lex says I’m the most pretentious person she knows. Let that be a warning if you’re not yet aware of just how pretentious an artist writing about their work can appear.

I once read a defence of Béla Tarr’s work that went something along the lines of ‘either all art is pretentious or none of it is’. I think the trouble comes from the fact that what the artist says about their work might not match how we’ve experienced it. However, if we’re to treat art work as texts and are struggling to ‘read’ the piece then the artist’s view of their work can at least offer us away in.

So here’s me, offering you a way in to the music video ‘Last Days’ which I directed (produced, shot and edited) for Preston Doom Metallers ‘Stitchthread’.

There’s a repeating trick throughout the video, so if you’ve not yet watched it, here it is. Otherwise, *SPOILERS (& PRETENTIOUSNESS) AHEAD*

Prior to an art exhibition I did in January 2011, Ian (Stitchthread’s mandibly hirsute drum beast) had created the branding for my production company. During the process we got into discussions on Béla Tarr and this led to Ian asking me whether I’d ever considered shooting a music video.

It’s not something I’d spent too much time considering given that a large amount of them are the video equivalent of fast food and an horrendous waste of talent. Added to this is that I repeatedly see videos for Metal songs with the same lazy horror film tropes- Band performing in a cellar/ woods/ wasteland intercut with some form of chase/ torture/ murder sequence, a lot of lens flare and shaky-cam during the solos. Often a vanity project and masturbatory aid for bands who know just how cool they are.

Ian assured me that this wasn’t the sort of thing they were after, and while I can’t vouch that the video has been safe from Jim the bassist’s onanism, I asked which songs they were considering having a video for. They forwarded an 8 minute song and the 18 minute ‘Last Days’. I was veering towards Last Days, not only because most people don’t make 18 minute music videos, but also because I felt closer to the apocalyptic themes of Last Days given the reading I was doing at the time just after the 2nd Black Metal Theory Symposium.

I’d wanted to start doing long camera takes since discovering Béla Tarr and the look I’ve gone for is lifted straight from ‘Sátántangó’ (the most intense 7 hours you’ll ever spend in front of a screen). SPOLIER- Because of the non-linear story in Sátántangó, there’s a certain scene where for a moment I thought I watching a ghost and this was the most prominent scene in my mind in addition to the overall look of Tarr’s films.

With having the band disappear from the screen, my intention was to have the viewer think about the space the camera is moving through and realising how the band must be moving about out of shot, opening the 2D screen into a 3D perception. This echoes Fontana’s Spatial Concept pieces (currently at Liverpool*spit* Tate)-

and also a sequence from Solyaris by Tarkovsky (who Tarr can be seen as a disciple of).

The video for Velouria by The Pixies was another big influence in terms of intent. At the time of it’s making, bands couldn’t get on Top Of The Pops without having a music video. In order to appear the Pixies shot a 23 second clip of themselves running down a quarry and then slowed the footage to the length of the song. This sort of playing with time strikes me as something quite Deleuzian (see Cinema 2) but was also the playful kind of subversion of form I was aiming for- The Last Days video isn’t a typical representation of a metal band, they keep disappearing from view but are always present, not only in the music, but in the space of the screen world.

As for the repeated disappearing, I’ve been fascinated with illusions and magic tricks since I was very young. The bloke who used to clean our windows showed me that trick where it looks like you’re pulling your thumb off once and I used to ask him to show me it over and over every week. I was totally baffled and it took years for me to work out but led me into learning magic tricks (I only know one decent card trick though). That kind of childhood experience of appearances and absences is covered by Paul Virilio in ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’, a book which has become important to my understanding of media.

We shot in early March and green shoots were beginning to show on the trees, a week later they would have been in blossom, so it was really the last possible weekend for a few months to get the video to look bleak. Although it certainly doesn’t come across, it was a glorious spring day and while we started early to minimise the amount of public about, by the last take I was nearly tripping over strangers to keep them out of the shot. Ian and I had rehearsed a few times the week before and on the day I rehearsed once with the band, who’d brought their running shoes.

There are no camera tricks or cuts in the video. The black and white, high contrast image is due to the camera used- a Fisher Price PXL 2000. This was a child’s toy in the 1980s and used to record to audio cassette tape (7 minutes of video on a C90 tape). Mine is circuit bent to allow recording to a digital device.

The use of this camera is another subversion in a world of glossy HD, not attempting to perfectly reflect reality but creating its own image world.

Gerry Fialka, champion of the PXL 2000 and organiser and LA’s annual PXL THIS film festival said this of the camera minimalism- “Giving the viewer less information might mean more involvement by the viewer…” This is something I go along with, not trying to spoon feed the meaning of the image (that’s what ‘making of’ blogs are for) but asking to viewer to bring themselves to the piece and opening up tmie and space in the piece to allow this. I was delighted when a viewer said they’d had an apophenic experience of it, seeing faces in the trees, their mind trying to create meaning from chaos.

Enough from me, what do you think?

Last Days by Stitchthread screened at Sync 4, Preston, March 2011 and will screen at PXL THIS 21, California, December 12th 2011

Philosophy for the Masses

Today is World Philosophy Day, yet most people in the UK have never studied the subject in any way. A movement to change this is gathering speed, with top philosophers and educators campaigning for philosophy and wider reasoning skills to become a central part of the curriculum.

Philosophy is a respected subject in many European schools, with all children in France, Portugal, Spain and Italy studying the subject for at least one year.  Philosophy is also popular in private schools and with home educators in the UK, with many independent schools offering afterschool clubs based on the subject for children as young as seven.   So why is it so absent from most of our education system?

The Philosophy Foundation, an organisation created to promote the teaching and study of philosophy in the UK, has released a set of resources aimed at schools, to help them to introduce the subject into lessons.  Peter Worley, co-founder of the foundation,set out his beliefs in a statement earlier today;

“We need to make Philosophy a regular feature of school life. It’s a shame that young people don’t get the opportunity to engage with some of the great ideas of the past. They still have relevance today and children have their minds stretched by exposure to big ideas, and pick up invaluable thinking skills that can be used in any context.

“The stimulation and intellectual excitement schoolchildren get from Philosophy only underlines the critical gap in our education system we continue to suffer from.”

The joy and satisfaction of considering the “big questions” is something that is being lost, which schools focusing too hard on subjects that can produce measurable results, yet it is notable that you have much better chances of seeing philosophy being taught at a private school, where statistically, the pupils are much more likely to end up in positions of power.  Should it not be a priority for those of us committed to increasing working class representation and social mobility to make sure that our children are given the tools of reasoning and debate that the rich kids get?

I am not advocating an abandonment of the creative and effective parts of the current curriculum – I’m no Gove.  I am however adding my voice to the many that are asking for our children to be given the chance to access the world of skills and knowledge that is currently being kept only for the elite.

We need to teach our children to question and to think about the way our society is structured, and what better way than through philosophy?


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