Feeling alone at Christmas, and what might it mean?

Even with family, with social connections, people can feel alone at times.  Even if they aren’t alone they can feel they are.  They may or may not feel lonely, which is a different thing from being alone, in fact people who are not alone can still feel lonely; a feeling of emptiness that is not unlike that of hunger.  It feels like hunger because that is what it is. 

The media, television companies especially, even more so at Christmas, focus on joy, on excitement, on being not alone, satisfying a need for something which is sublimated into a need for new, for bigger, for better and the commercialism of the modern world is only too happy to exploit it.

The collateral damage, the human casualties, we probably don’t think about for a few days at least – if we ever did. Perhaps, because they can’t avail themselves of the balm of excess, we maybe feel guilty about them: fortunate to not be them and uncomfortable about it.  When you don’t even have a roof over your head, or food to eat, being made to yearn for Jimmy Choo or Gucci is at best cruel, but what might we lack and may have in common with them?

The reality for many is that the need, this yearning, is for something deeper.  Alone this year and binge watching a continuous stream of (especially American) made-for Christmas movies, I’ve realised that, formulaic though they are, they touch on common themes.

They all seem to offer hope: hope of redemption, or simply hope for a kinder future.  They seem to value connectedness to values we may have lost, the importance of giving not taking, turning our backs on opportunism, and especially the need for, and to find, love.  Oddly, one of the most iconic (to the ‘west’) and much loved of modern Christmas stories, Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”, does not have the pursuit of love as a central theme, although the loss of the youthful love of his sweetheart because of Scrooge’s greed and ambition is an issue. Other seasonal filmic offers are similar: “It’s a Wonderful Life”, for example, focusses on the love of man, not romantic love.

Christmas is an important religious festival for practising and devout Christians.  For the rest, non-practising but perhaps brought up in the context of a Christian tradition, acknowledgement of something missing in our spiritual lives is circumvented by willing acceptance of, even faith in, something miraculous or supernatural but religiously ‘safer’: fairies, angels and Father Christmas.

Faith can be defined as a belief in something, or someone, on the basis of conviction rather than empirical proof: evidence. All the world’s religions are founded on faith (though some adherents of relgions would say there is proof for their particular faith. So, whatever your faith, or none, if you are alone at Christmas, and feeling a gnawing hunger, try reaching for something less tangible, but maybe ultimately more filling, than food or material possessions.

Fatbergs, Recycling, and Non-Joined up Thinking

I expect that most of us think “recycling” is a good thing, and so we do our ‘bit’.  By “we” I mean the “most of us” who recycle – at all. Our local authorities provide us with multiple bins, into which we sort our discards, which are collected at variable intervals.  Those of us who live in small towns, or the country, generally have somewhere inoffensive to keep these bins but millions live in streets of terraced, or flatted, housing with no private outside space.  In consequence the bins clutter the pavement, or are kept inside between collection days.  Opportunist wildlife, like urban foxes and gulls, make quite a job of feeding from these bins.  A different kind of recycling. A lot of this recycling process is based on the technology, and economics, of roadside refuse collection – we are stuck with various designs of “wheelie bin”, and vehicle, because that’s best for the industry, not the consumer.  In rural Italy they have bigger communal bins, kept on public land, and they are emptied by bin trucks the size of a big Transit van; great for getting round little roads (or own streets clogged with parked cars).

“We” make full use of the charity shop industry, to recycle unwated but still useful items.  “We” join community schemes (like Freecycle”) to up, down or sideways cycle stuff.  Repair cafes are starting to appear all over the country, to help us extend the life of things which otherwise would be discarded.  This is great because it also brings people together and friendships are formed.  But not everything is, or can be, repaired or passed on, and stuff has to be “dumped”.    Now, our own local council may not happen to deal with one or other item of refuse: the whole matter of what can, or cannot, be recycled by each authority is a confusing maze, but one thing they all seem to agree on is that containers must be clean.

We diligently wash out our yogurt pots, our food trays, our baked bean tins, empty olive oil bottles, margarine boxes, soup tins etc., etc.  In so doing we use one of the scarecest resources on the planet: water.  Not only that, but it’s clean water that’s had to be extracted and processed (at whatever cost).  Much of this water is also heated, because you can’t clean a lot of the ‘gunk’ with cold water.  We use gas or electricity to heat the water – more scarce resources.  As soon as a lot of this stuff gets into our drains it cools and solidifies again, welded into fatbergs along with wet wipes and other in-sanitary items.

The stuff that has to go direct to the council “Recycling Centre”, because the bin men won’t take it, generates masses of road journeys by individual vehicles, more pollution, more road wear, more fuel.  Many of the measures are designed “top down” and address very individual, specific, environmental issues like reducing the amount of land fill.  The consequences are, it seems to me, not entirely thought through and, overall, not environmentally friendly.

We need more joined-up thinking on environmental policy: industry, food producers, consumers, and governments all have something to offer but not if they only tackle the one bit they are interested in (or can make money out of).  In many cases I fear the problem they solve individually just creates a different problem for someone else.

News, Fake News or Dross

Most of my readers will know where I stand on Donald Trump, but the words “Fake News” in the title of this blog shouldn’t mislead them to think this is another anti -Trump piece.  It isn’t.

Donald Trump points a giant searchlight of criticism at the media, but it obscures as much as it illuminates and I want to explore where, hidden in the glare, there is some truth in what he says.  In my opinion it’s not the truth he claims, but I think it is important nonetheless.  Let’s start with defining “News”.  What do we mean by “News”?  Here are a couple of definitions:

  • Newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.
  • Information not previously known to (someone).

Self evidently these definitions of news say that “news” informs, that it is about recent events, that it is noteworthy, and that it is not previously known (i.e. it is “new”).  In my opinion much of what is presented as news by the media frequently fails one or more of the tests applied by these definitions.  Now we must add the test applied by Donald Trump, ironically in a way which also fails these tests: factual accuracy.  My own personal experience is, and has always been, that any news story of which I have personal, first-hand, knowledge (in many cases having been present at the event) have been misreported. Historically I could point to two reasons: laziness and “mischief”.  The latter of these is shorthand for an agenda driven by the owners of mainstream media.

Today we have the alternative media driven by the internet. It feeds an increasing appetite for instantaneous gratification.  It encourages promotion of, and response to, stories and, simultaneously, a diminution of reflective and analytical capacity in the audience.  I’d go so far as to say the rise of “social media” is the single biggest threat to democracy in that they feed the insatiable need to say “Look at me”, “This is what I think”,  “I’ve heard this happened”, and to share it with the entire internet connected world as if our knowledge reflects well on us.  I know, and you don’t, therefore I am superior.  Now I’m well aware that, in writing this blog, I’m doing the same to some extent.  Defenders of social media argue that their very immediacy, and relative lack of censorship, is a great strength in democracy.  Unfortunately, and referring back to my earlier definitions, a lot of what we see is a) not new, b) not accurate (or even completely false, i.e. fake) or c) not really noteworthy.

There is another dimension: commercial gain, the financial imperative.  Many posts on social media are, in fact, a kind of “Trojan Horse”.  They are titillation.  Little wriggling worms on hooks, that encourage ‘bite’ on a story whose purpose is really to expose us to embedded advertising or, worse, embedded political messages

Caught in a seemingly endless competitive media storm the mainstream outlets (including dear old “auntie” Beeb) trawl through, even encourage our engagement with, social media for “news” so they aren’t left behind.  “News”, by definition, has a short life.  You’ve either covered the story or it has gone.  The trouble, in my opinion, is that far too much “news” should just be left to wither away for failing the test of lacking accuracy, lacking news worthiness, lacking information.  Far, far, too much of our mainstream news comes from television where the lowest common denominator of populist interest is frequently presented to us by people who haven’t an independent journalistic brain cell between their ears and skip from sport to nuclear energy to government policy to entertainment, like bees gathering pollen.  They read the “news” from text on an autocue, often (it seems) written for them by someone who can’t spell or fact check, but they blithely read it uncritically anyway.

We need more discernment than that.

Zombie Guinea Pigs and other Entertainment

I’m not well.  That’s my excuse, anyway. I’m watching a lot of Daytime TV, specifically extreme everything.  It seems to cut through the cattargh – and if that’s not how it’s spelled then it certainly feels like it, with double emphasis on the ‘argh’ part.

Where was I?  Oh yes.  Old American daytime TV.  The adverts for the coming programmes are so entertaining, especially as they are, bizarrely trailed as “Festive Fun”.  I started to freewheel on alternative content.  “Zombie Guinea Pigs”.  “When Koalas go Bad”.  “Bonanaz” (like Bonanza only more fruity).  “True Parking”.  “How it’s made, and then doesn’t work”.  “Extreme Lying Down”. “Sandwiches of the Pharoahs”.  “Secrets of Hitler’s Sock Drawer”. “Celebrity Podiatry”. “Killer Ironing” and “Pro-Celebrity Incontinence”.

The way I feel, I could watch most of these – once anyway.

Alternative Economics…a Random Thought!

I have a totally mad idea for repairing our economy, and threadbare national life, and I’m struggling to find much of a downside.

The government should give £5 million to every person of working age in Britain. Working age would be defined as between 23 (say leaving university age) and a new, lower, retiring age of 60.

The government can afford it now, after all it’s less than a couple of week’s UK “contribution” to the EU.  Those who hate their jobs will be able to give up, and do something more satisfying, or more creative, or nothing at all.  Jobs will be filled by people who want to do them.  Migrants will find plenty of space, because large numbers of people will simply go and live somewhere nice and warm, and the people still here will be able to employ them with a decent wage.

The massive increase in personal spending power will also stimulate the economy.  For example people will build or buy better houses, opening up the bottom of the property market as ‘upcyclers’ dump houses.  The banks and investment ‘industries’ would thrive.  There’d be less crime, because most criminals would already have more money than they’d know what to do with, and the police could concentrate on organised crime.  No need for any benefits at all ‘cos we’d all be rolling in it.  Tax take would need to be maintained, of course, to buy nuclear submarines etc., but if we are all multi-millionnaires VAT could be increased to 35% and nobody would really notice.  Those who have always enjoyed a life based on privilege and unearned income would be unhappy, but they can just sod off or start consultancies to advise what to do with our money; the nouveau riche would have more people to play with.

Now then.  I’ve had another lateral thought which, at a stroke (no pun intended), would free up bed blocking in hospitals, solve our underprovision in care home places, revive the steel and shipbuilding industries and cut off the exponential increase in funeral costs.  Well, not literally at a stroke – but relatively.  Instead of care homes, and cottage hospitals (those that still exist) full of recuperating geriatrics, we send them all off on a permanent cruise.  Move the whole lot “offshore” into a low, or no, tax, regime.  As I understand it, places on cruises can work out substantially cheaper than places in care homes.  Cruises have unlimited good food, on-board doctors and entertainment – all more than can be provided in “Halcyon Days” up the road.  Some canny geriatrics (especially in America) have already cottoned on to this and live the proverbial life of Riley swanning all over the world year round.  Permanent  ‘guests’ would be able to have their loved ones visit them “on holiday” and, if worst comes to the worst, a burial at sea is definitely more economical (and ecological) than a cremation or a burial on land.  We’d have to build a few more ships, and staff them, but that’s a bonus for the economy too and the billions saved out of the welfare budget would probably cover the cost anyway.  We could even have fully equipped hospital ships!  I’m putting my name down.

“May contain scenes of…..”

Do you watch the BBC TV drama “The Night Manager”?  Terrific stuff, but before the last episode the BEEB gave one of their increasingly stupid Health and Safety Warnings.  “..contains sex scenes and scenes of violence that viewers may find upsetting.”  I was amused that they differentiated between offence caused to viewers of sex as opposed to viewers of violence: in fact amused enough to ‘freewheel’ on warnings that might apply to other output of the BEEB.

“Contains scenes of pointless expenditure of licence payer’s money……(Top Gear, anything with Ant and Dec in, anything with the word ‘Extreme’ in the title)”

“Contains scenes of shameless political evasiveness…(The Andrew Marr Show).

“Contains items of trivial, lowest common denominator, lazily reported news…(BBC Breakfast)

Join in!  Any suggestions (other broadcasters than BBC are available) welcome.

What if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow…….?

None of what I’m writing here is new.  I was thinking about what I would do with the rest of my life if I was given a finite time to live: a diagnosis of a terminal illness.  Then I had the blinding flash of the obvious: we all have a terminal illness – called life.  We are all dying from the day we are born.  Inexorably, unavoidably, the clock is winding down.  Why then do we have this way of carrying on our lives as if there is always tomorrow?  I’m fully aware that this doesn’t apply to everyone: some people manage to live in the moment and some spend their lives preparing for the end.  Many people don’t have the luxury of planning their lives: they are too poor or insecure to do more than survive day-to-day.

Many of us have already had, and all will eventually have, experience of unanticipated events that change our lives.  Some are good things but some are accidents, loved ones die, people get ill without warning.  Events like that have the effect of pulling us up short, making us re-evaluate our lives and priorities, but for the most part we carry on more or less as before.  Why is that?

I suppose, for one thing, a root and branch re-evaluation implies we have got something wrong, and nobody likes to admit that.  For another thing, even for the retired, our lives are made to progress through routines, and routine sets its own priorities.  There is comfort in the predictable.

When I began writing this piece the question it posed was theoretical, and the dilemma academic.  However a real-life diagnosis of terminal cancer, in a loved one, has given it added relevance and poignancy.  Living each day to the maximum, and in ‘the moment, after a lifetime of living for the future and planning ahead, is very, very hard.  It is particularly difficult when the medics are telling us to live day-by-day while, at the same time, offering some slight hope that there may be a future.


Christmas Sentiment

Have you noticed that, especially at this time of year, there are many more charity advertisements plucking at our heart strings?  Only £2 or £3 a month will secure a free conscience.  Competing for our conscience pounds are cuddly animals, not so cuddly animals and even less cuddly people.  We can adopt a dog, cat, old person, homeless person, snow leopard, African child with terrible eye disease and so on.  Why not cut out the middle man and, for example, send the donkeys off to feed the snow leopards and use the saved money to eradicate eye disease?  Donkey burger anyone?

Seriously, though, I find it incredible that we are asked to support thousands of donkeys in so-called “sanctuaries” all over the place when, at the same time, our compassion is tested by The Salvation Army and homeless charities like Shelter.  It ought to be no contest, really, and yet the Donkey Sanctuary is a multi-million pound business employing hundreds of people in the UK alone.  Not only that, but the charity owns and, as far as I understand it, continues to buy many hundreds of acres of productive farm land on which to let these beasts gambol and frolic.  Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, and abhor cruelty and ill-treatment – but surely people come first?

Something wrong somewhere, or am I Donkey Hotay and tilting at windmills?

Sure fire TV hit format

I was watching another repeat episode of Antique Downton DIY Celebrity Gardening Bake-Off the other night and thought, wouldn’t it be great if TV executives would stop taking the easy way out and treat us all as sentient beings instead of ratings fodder.