Lions and donkeys, hawks and doves


The last 24 hours have emphasised the difficulties for the amateur blogger. No sooner have I started some mildly humorous reflections on package holidays and maybe something about how much I bloody love the Greek Islands, via some very trivial moaning about Kindles and how they STILL make my teeth itch, than it all become painfully trivial compared to what is happening right now in Syria.

But while it would be perverse to ignore, I have never been more conscious of my amateur status as a commentator, or more acutely conscious that the world could probably bumble along nicely without my opinion. But when everyone around me seems to knows what to say about what we should do, I at least need to work out what I think.

Facebook and Twitter are bursting at the seams with opinions –passionate and divergent opinions, held by people who I admire and respect greatly.

The difficulty is, I see both sides, all sides, and although I feel the depth of the passion, I can’t completely agree with either side, not yet.

Our feelings about this war – or conflict, or military intervention – are obviously coloured by all the conflicts we have lived through before, or lived with the aftermath. For me, and for many of us, this is a back-catalogue of vivid and competing narratives, from Saturday afternoon films, history lessons, the news – two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, The Falklands, Bosnia, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq.

We have absorbed and merged our own versions of a muddy, bloody set of competing narratives and conflicting emotions about when, or if, we should have joined, and left, and the nature of the actions that were carried out in our name.

We are all of us bringing to this particular crisis point our own mixture of guilt and pride and fear.

This is not intended to be a thorough sweep of the complex historical threads of the 20th century – I’d be pushed to manage that in 800 words. But unless you are a Miraculist thinker – Why can’t we all just get round a table and TALK THIS THROUGH?? – then the other arguments seem too finely balanced to reach anything other than a cautious, temporary conclusion about the right thing to do.

Those who are cautious about intervening in Syria are, I would guess, most inhibited by our recent history of intervention in the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter being perhaps the most strongly opposed war in our British history – at least publicly. The arguments against intervening in Iraq seem to carry a heavy weight of precedent here.

I understand these inhibitions, yet the case for intervention has moral power behind it too, undeniably – the human need to reach out to those horribly oppressed and suffering terribly. The story of the UN involvement in Bosnia, and further back (though still incredibly potent in our national psychology) the war against the Nazis retains a great deal of power for those arguing to help an oppressed minority. And the story of our appeasement in the 1930s casts a long dark shadow.

Leaving aside the shouting about Hawks and Doves, and excepting the dictators and the warmongers and the arms-dealers – for most of us, we are more or less resigned to armed conflict being part of our present and future as well as our past. Human history is, to a very great extent the history of war; and little has changed since Aristotle wrote that sometimes to make peace, you have to make war.

But there was a time – not so long ago – that the many lions on the front line were supposed to risk everything for King and Country and no questions asked. The decisions were taken by the few and affected the many. What can we gain here, what can we lose, and how many lives might be lost? And is it worth it? Does a soldier’s life weigh heavier than a civilian’s. or vice versa? What about the lives of the enemy? And when do we stop counting the deaths? When does the war end for the purposes of making this calculations? And how can we predict the outcomes. The other costs – to neighbouring countries, to our reputations on the world stage – how do they weigh in the balance?

Leaders have always made this balance in the secrecy of their talking chambers, we know they didn’t always do a great job – but now we are all supposed to be able to do it.

The political changes of the last hundred years mean that the will of the people – public opinion – is now used to justify our actions. Yet if we were to intervene in Syria, the chances are that very few of us would be involved directly or indirectly.

I find it impossible. I don’t know enough – about what’s happening on the ground, about the potential outcomes, to make that calculation. I hope, I trust, that those in charge are doing their best to make this impossible balance.

I am not a hawk, nor am I a dove. I am just an ordinary person, whose heart and gut wrenches to see the horrible scenes in Syria. I hope that is what democracy really means – not that the really tough decisions are made by all of us, collectively, but rather that they are made by the right people with the right information, balancing out what seem to me to be irreconcilable arguments and counterarguments.









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Going Home

local hero

This week I am a long long way from The Village, on the other side of Europe. Quite a long way from home, in some ways, but then coming to Greece always feels like a bit of a home-coming too.

The Greek Islands were the first place I experienced Proper Abroad, and I spent many happy weeks island-hopping in the early 1990s.

One thing I have never done before, though, is visit the marine sanctuary on Zakynthos, breeding grounds of the endangered Loggerhead Turtle.

This afternoon we took a boat trip across the ludicrously turquoise waters and we were lucky enough to see some turtles; at the sight of one of the adults surfacing to breathe I made a noise that I have never made before, which is hard therefore to reproduce faithfully in any phonetic way but was something like: ‘Squeeeeaaahhhhh!’

The fact that Loggerheads, dangerously cute as they are, find themselves on the endangered list is frankly unsurprising, given that their methods of reproduction are nothing short of ludicrously complicated.

In very simplified terms, this is what happens: a lady and the gentleman turtle love each other very much and have a very special cuddle in the bay.

The pregnant females swim to shore and then dig their nests in the sand of the beaches along this heavily populated part of the island – but obviously only if the sand is JUST RIGHT. The female then buggers off to sea and a few weeks later, but  only if all the conditions JUST RIGHT AGAIN, the eggs hatch and the matchbox sized hatchlings stagger precariously towards sea, dodging predatory birds and tanked-up tourists along the way – for LO in an extraordinary twist of bad luck, the Loggerhead turtles have evolved to carry out their mating activity on a bit of coastline that can only be described as tourist-heaven. They only know the way because they are programmed to head for the strongest light source, which used to be the reflections of the moon and stars on the ocean, right up until that was overtaken by the neon lights of the Moulin Rouge Nite Spot.

The story of the Loggerheads, though, did more than make me shell out a few Euros for a t-shirt that Sparkly Daughter proudly sported for the rest of the day, even though, as she whispered to me later, ‘it really doesn’t go with this skirt AT ALL.’

It wasn’t so much the narrative of those little hatchlings struggling valiantly across the beach with only a one in a thousand chance of surviving to adulthood, even if they dodge the shoreline predators – touching though that is, that still didn’t set me off.

It’s what happens next that moved me. The hatchlings that make it into the sea, they swim away until they are adults. They go somewhere else for the next 25 or so years. Where do they go in all that time? Here’s the thing – no-one knows. These are called The Lost Years. (Maybe they are finding themselves on a beach in Goa; maybe they are hanging out with some really dodgy sea-going types, like porpoises, or perhaps enjoying their freedom working the cruise ships.)

And – here’s the bit that REALLY made my eyes go all misty and my throat all lumpy – after those Lost Years, the turtles are programmed to return to the beach where they hatched. Something in their brains remembers, something about the angles of the stars and the moon or magnetic North or something – and they come home, even they were only ever here for half an hour, the memory is not forgotten over the long intervening years.

Of course, a lot can happen in 25 years whether you are a turtle or not. That empty beach that you struggled along can sprout beach cafes, a rash of sunbeds and a scattering of vomiting Brits. It doesn’t matter – it’s home, and that’s where your brain, and your instinct, will take you.

I know it is horribly sentimental, but this powerful draw to home, for better or worse, is what I see all around me. At times of crisis, or at turning points in our lives, I think we are often drawn back to the place, or the time, or the person imprinted on us in our early, impressionable years. It needn’t be part of your childhood, but the first times seem to be the ones that stick, that you can’t shift.

All the collected experiences and memories of the years that follow – they can seem pale and unimportant in comparison. As middle age approaches, it seems that nothing shines as bright, cuts as deep, holds the heart so much as the things, the places and the people that first did.

I have innumerable examples of this – contemporaries of mine suddenly desperate to find their first lost love, twenty years after they last said goodbye. Broken friendships renewed and patched up, two decades on. And the ceaseless pull to childhood haunts, adolescent passions.

The song “Going Home’ from the wonderful film Local Hero sums this feeling up for me – poignant, sweet, ambivalent. At the end of the film, Macintyre returns home to Texas but is already longing for the Highland fishing village where he has left his heart. (Despite his name, this isn’t even an ancestral pull  – his grandparents in the film are Hungarian and chose the name Macintyre because ‘it sounded American’. It’s a beautiful film and one that talks, to me at least, about the search for our home.

Which is partly why I’m here in Zakynthos in the first place, trying to show my daughters why a place that first made my heartbeart quicken as an undergraduate, is still where my mind goes to in quiet moments twenty-mumble years later, and will always be part of the landscape of my heart.

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Blogger’s block


When I started this blog just over two years ago, I confess to being completely naïve about it.

At the time I didn’t subscribe to any blogs and had barely even read any.

To be honest, I still don’t.

Back then, I was really pretty vague about what a blog was.

To be honest, I still am.

Of course, in typically-irritating Number6 fashion I dealt with this deplorable lack of experience and understanding with breezily energetic optimism, pledging recklessly to anyone who was interested, and many people who weren’t, that I would write 800 words a day for the whole summer holiday.

(Which I did, for the record. More or less, give or take.)

I can’t even rightly remember whose idea it as, except I am pretty certain it wasn’t mine (see above). At the time, I had just finished writing a novel and was feeling a bit deflated and mopey; I suspect that the worm of the idea was planted in my head by my nearest and dearest who had quite enjoyed the (relative) peace and quiet of my frenzy of writing activity, and possibly also wanted to continue to benefit from the crackingly good mood writing puts me in.

When I have just finished a blog, I get a little giddy and excited, bouncing around in a animated, Tiggerish fashion, letting little birdies alight on my finger and tweeting at them just like Snow White, but without the dwarves. I guess it might wear thin after a while, but it is probably fairly entertaining to watch.

I learned a huge amount that first summer, mainly about the skill and craft of writing, which has been incredibly helpful for my teaching. I also learned that there is much much more to blogging than just chucking some words at a screen, pressing the publish button and legging it to the pub.

It’s a whole industry, with workshops and seminars and conferences and books to read and lingo to learn and, for some, money to be made.

I haven’t done any of that, of course. ‘Buy How to Blog book’ has been on my To Do list for two years now, but I still haven’t got round to it.

If the reasons why I started this blog are a bit fuzzy, then the reasons why I stopped are absolutely crystal clear. As some of you have pointed out, my blogging has been somewhat intermittent since that first impetus; I have fudged the answer to the question that begged, with many half-truths. Yeah, I was finishing my Masters dissertation last year, and yes it takes an hour and it’s often hard to find it. (Although I do manage to find enough time to faff around on the internet every day, rain or shine, marking backlog or no.)

But that isn’t it, not quite. Once I finished that first challenge, it struck me how self-indulgent the whole process might seem, in the cold light of day. Once I started to read some of the other blogs out there, it became obvious that many of them seem to have some sort of actual purpose, like chronicling something unusual and noteworthy (life as a transsexual working on an oil-rig, for example or pogoing to the source of the Danube); or they might have some practical aim, like collecting gluten-free recipes or tips for yarn-bombing.

They all have something to say, something unusual and interesting and unique. Even the name suggests it, I now realise – the Log is something the Captain writes. The main man in charge of The Ship, recording its progress.

In this landscape, compared to these kind of blogs, what exactly am I blogging about?

Well, nothing in particular. Whatever crops up, whatever I find interesting. I am the Captain of nothing, certainly not a vessel with an engine or even a rudder.

I am mainly just shooting the breeze, about things that interest me. Which on the average day, is almost everything. My little blogging ideas notebook is usually full of a backlog of any number of potential subjects, clattering behind their traps like a line-up of jittery and sarcastic greyhounds.

In the days before the World Wide Web gave us all an outlet, there was at least some quality control about publishing. You submitted your piece and some editor somewhere, wearing one of those green transparent visors no doubt, spiked it or stamped it.

Nowadays, all you need is a piece of ludicrously easy-to-use software and hey presto – you’re a writer. Or, you know, possibly not. Most of the time, I don’t even know if it’s a hobby or a job. It would certainly feel much better if someone was paying me for the writing, though of course the idea of actually pitching my writing to someone, attracting advertising revenue (argh!), makes me squirm with embarrassment.

Some of the time, the very worst of times. I suspect that writing this blog is in fact that most excruciatingly unEnglish of things – showing off. That I am an over-tired toddler and I should really go to bed.

But while this blog doesn’t aim to change anything for the reader it’s certainly changed everything for the writer. Nothing short of this – it’s changed the way I look at the world. Writing helps me think more clearly, helps me get a better perspective on the world, make connections between all sorts of things.

Someone once described trying to get your writing to an audience on the internet was like floating origami boats up the Yangste River. But I guess you could say that doesn’t really matter – it’s the paradoxical equivalent of dance like no-one’s watching. Write like no-one’s reading – just keep folding and floating.

Many people I meet in The Real Life read the blog, and often start up conversations based on something I have said here. Sometimes agreeing with me, but most often offering another view of the subject. I have had some of the most incredibly interesting interactions with people with whom I would have otherwise only made small talk. Not that I have anything against small talk, but time is short, and given the choice, I like a bit of deep talk, and maybe some wide and broad talk, given the option.

So writing the blog has made my everyday interactions with the world and the people I know much much more interesting, and that is precious and I am extraordinarily grateful for it.

So thank you to whoever suggested I started this blog and I will try to unclench my English reticence for long enough to keep folding and floating, one origami boat at a time, for my own pleasure, until there is nothing left to write about.

Which, I can safely predict, will be never.

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Think ink


Yesterday’s headlines in the tabloid press made my point about the mainstream news agenda in rather glorious Technicolor. According to The Sun et al, the most important story of the day was WOMAN DRAWS FLOWERS ON HER OWN BUTTOCKS.

And before you say, stop moaning Number6 you don’t have to look! I really really had little choice. Browsing the racks in the Gatwick WHSmiths, my eyes were magnetically drawn to the very vivid sight of Cheryl Cole’s backside, splashed over several front pages, looking for all the world like the kind of pinny even my granny would have rejected as garish.

Now, just to clarify, I am not drawn to the keyboard to judge the editors of the newspapers in question, or mock the readership either. I am not denying that this was a compelling spectacle indeed, and one that will stay with me for some time  – so compelling in fact that I could do nothing but stare for about thirty seconds; even now, 24 hours and several thousand miles away, I can still see those overblown, blowsy blooms whenever I close my eyes.

The other thing that struck me was the subheading – something like, would you be happy for your daughter to have this done? A pretty boggling question to accompany a pretty damn boggling piece of body art.

Even in 2013, when even the most run-down high street seems to have at least a couple of tattoo parlours, these tattoos are spectacular – huge, extensive and reportedly agonising.

When I was a kid, tattoos were still a very unusual sight, certainly on women. They were usually only seen on the meaty biceps of ex-forces men, and were confined to some pretty sketchy symbols and basic messages about how much these chaps loved their dear old mums.

In my year off before university I worked on a fairground for a while and there I saw, close up for the first time, some pretty impressive efforts; one man claimed to have a pack of hounds down his back, chasing a fox which was disappearing just, erm, out of view. (For the record, I can only offer hearsay evidence, as I never took him up on his offer to show me this work of art.)

Tattoos these days are very different – worn as body art and, from an observer’s point of view, intended to portray something about the person’s identity – a tribal marking or belonging , or a sign of individual identity, or often both at the same.

If caught without a book on a bus or in a bar these days, I can pass the time by reading the tattoos on the exposed flesh of those around me.

They are also pretty much ubiquitous, a fact which I only grasped fully a few weeks ago when, during one stuffy and enlightening lunchtime, I viewed various parts of my work colleagues that I had never seen before and found, somewhat to my surprise, that mine was the only flesh left uninked. (Whether this makes me a raging square or a wild rebel is – I guess – a moot point.)

I don’t have any tattoos and the chances of me getting one are about as high as me voting UKIP; I don’t have any piercings either, apart from one, long healed over, in each ear. Like many in my generation, I first mutilated my body at the age of 11 with a sewing needle (sterilised in Dettol, don’t worry), in the privacy of the phone box* about half a mile from my house with the help of a cork and the steady hand of my hard-nut friend Yvonne.

Unfortunately we made such an outrageous hash of it that I was forced to mumble into the Adam and Eve hairdressing salon on the high street two days later to try and get my lobes straightened up; I walked out proudly sporting some very mainstream ‘gold’ studs to twiddle for the next six weeks. Rebel rebel.

So I can’t really imagine what possesses someone, celebrity or not, to make such radical changes to their body in such an incredibly permanent way. It can’t be an act of rebellion these days; tattoos, like piercings, are the opposite of punk, the absolute mark of belonging to mainstream culture. Today’s real punks and rebels are probably wearing the Marks and Spencer Classics collection with matching wimples.

A work of art, then? Well I have seen some very beautiful tattoos in my time, and Ms Cole’s is not one of them. A statement? If it is, I can’t read it from here, but maybe my pop culture receptors are all wonky. A publicity stunt? If so, a very very effective one.

So, to answer the (probably rhetorical) Sun headline, WOULD I be happy for my daughters to get their bums inked up like a pair of sub-Kidston sofa-cushions? The bottom line (sorry) is that, if they were over the age of consent, it would be profoundly none of my business. Their bodies belong to them, as mine does to me.

And it’s Cheryl Cole’s choice too, of course, though this is a complicated area. In the celebrity culture where she makes her living, women’s bodies are public property and subject to comment, whether positive or negative; she markets herself and her physical appearance, and a crackingly lucrative product it is too – her skin, her hair, all of her, has been sold or at the very least rented out on a very long term lease.

The underlying assumption in the question, though, is that Cheryl Cole is, or should be, a role model for young girls – a question I think I will have to return to.

In the meantime, I ask Gothic Daughter as neutrally of possible if she would think of getting a tattoo. She gives it some considerable thought before replying, ‘Maybe a skull and crossbones. Dripping with blood. With “mum” underneath in flowy letters.’

Oh bugger, now I’ve put the idea in her head. Better get the kid some better role models, sharpish.


*As Simon Armitage notes in his fabulous book ‘Gig’, where do this generation go for a bit of privacy, now that the era of the mobile phone has put paid to the unsanitary sanctuary of the phone box?

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I get all the news I need on the weather report


I blogged earlier this week about the way the news has escaped from its bulletin-boundaries, and is now not just available on tap, but spurts out everywhere like a burst water main (sewage pipe?).

The strange thing is, though, that this explosion of news has not, I would say, improved the quality of the news we receive, but rather the opposite.

The pressure to report something, anything, and not to miss the very small news window before the story goes stale has led to all sorts of inaccuracies being repeated.  My favourite example of this was the night I told my sister that George Best was dead as she came to say goodnight; in the morning, she was rather put out to find that Georgie was still hanging on. Reports of his death had been much exaggerated or, to give it its proper title, ‘Sky-news-reported’.

It’s not just inaccuracies that creep in. As the pressure to fill the hours has led to a proliferation of reports, comments, observations – well there’s a lot of filler. And the filler starts to muddy the waters – not just about what’s important, but more significantly, about what the pogging hell is going on in the world.

The world is a very complicated place – it always has been. It’s in our nature as human beings to seek to make sense of things that are basically inexplicable.  In the olden days the world was more confusing – Why is that hill erupting? Why do the stars move around in the sky? What the DICKENS was that loud noise? Why hasn’t Google been invented so I can answer these questions?

But back then the answer was also more simple. Very simple indeed really:


God had decided, either to act all by Himself or to leave things in the hands of the Chief or the King or the Holy Man.

In this ‘enlightened’  21st century Western World we have gained a great deal but we have lost a great deal too. Certainty for a start, as well as way of looking at the world which wouldn’t leave us confused and anxious. He hasn’t, it turns out, got the whole world in his hands. We are teetering about in the universe all by ourselves. No-one’s in charge you say? No wonder we’re edgy.

Instead, for those of us in the Western World who aren’t content to put our lives and all the things in the world in the hands of God, well what are we left with? Trying to make sense of the inexplicable with frankly little to no hope of success.

Not only that, but a greater volume of reporting harms our understanding of the world by making us feel confused and perhaps even distressed. Take for example the Syrian chemical attack this week. A great deal of distressing footage is available of these attacks, but at the time of writing this blog, according to the most reliable news reports, it isn’t at all certain whether these attacks took place at all.

And even if the footage wasn’t faked, then it isn’t clear whether these were chemical weapons, of what kind, and when or where the attack took place, let alone who carried it out:

Even if we are reasonably sure what has happened in a particular situation, explanations and actions are equally hard to pin down. Like who’s to blame for the 20o8 worldwide financial crisis – Blair, Brown, Bush, Thatcher, Clinton – who? Or the bankers? And what did they do, exactly?  Was it benefit scroungers, the feckless youth, the EU,the French, the Spanish, the Greeks, the geeks, or WAS IT THE GERMANS AGAIN? Are you sure????

What about this week’s GCSE results – why are exam results down this year? Are exams getting easier or harder or are students working harder or less hard or WHAT IS GOING ON?

I can guarantee you have heard, seen or read acres of what we used to call ‘newsprint’ about these news stories. We don’t lack information; if anything we have too much, but it gets harder and harder to pick our way through it all to reach any firm conclusion. We get bogged down by the complexities and exhausted by our lack of power not only to understand but moreover to have any impact on the issues of the day.

I know I know – it all seems like a bit of a cop out. Just because it’s depressing, just because it’s difficult to understand doesn’t let you off the hook. We all have a responsibility to try, to be engaged, to CARE, right? Well yes, and there are countless examples of individuals making a difference.

I am not suggesting that you stop listening to the news. Or stop trying to be informed about what is happening locally or globally. I guess what I am saying is that it is OK, maybe even the right thing to do, to conclude that you are unsure about what you think sometimes. Not because you don’t have enough information, but because you can’t be certain. That the issues are finely balanced, and sometimes you can just turn off the latest report about the latest seemingly insoluble, hellishly complicated situation, and do something else instead.

So here are some of my suggestions for some other ways to get your news; ways that won’t make you any more or less well-informed, but might just act as an antidote to the slew of painful images and words that are funnelled into your brain every minute of every day:

  1. Subscribe to Farming Online – not only will you get the most incredibly accurate weather news, you will also get to hear a lot about winter barley yields, and the truth of what’s behind JB Diego’s strange ears this year. (It’s a wheat thing.)
  2. Go down to the pub and start talking to people there. If you don’t have a local, you have my every sympathy, but try the allotments instead. If you go tomorrow, you might even get some courgettes; I can barely step out of the door this week without people thrusting courgettes in my handbag.
  3. Go onto the BBC website and change your home location to somewhere else, somewhere a little gentler, where the news won’t make you want to drink yourself into a stupor. Mine was set to Very Welsh Wales for a while, which involved lots of news about surf and high lifeboat demand; more recently I have swapped to Ullapool, where today an escaped pig caused some very significant delays on the A82.

And that, you can be reasonably sure, is the certain truth.

Here’s my friend’s take on the rolling news phenomenon:

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