Category Archives: Current Affairs

December 21 2012: It’s not the End of the World (1)

And so December 21st 2012 has finally rolled around, and the UK is still here at least, although I admit we’re not in the Mayan time zone. Today being the End of the World is a belief that has gone from being a fringe concept alluded to in The X-Files and on conspiracy websites to achieving mainstream notoriety, although I’m not sure that many people are taking it particularly seriously – I think even the Mayans are perplexed at how the whole thing has blown up.

In response, then, I thought I’d repost a couple of entries from a gazillion years ago… Well, 2005. Some of the references are dated now, but I think the point still stands.

Originally posted September 5th 2005, which may help put things into context
It’s hard to watch the news lately. The pictures of a devestated New Orleans and its Gulf Coast neighbours are bad enough, but what gives the whole situation an apocalyptic air are the reports coming from the aftermath – looting, abandonment, refuge camps, failure to respond, the breakdown of civilisation’s fragile mask. You start wondering what would happen should it affect your town, your home. You start thinking about the end of the world, or at least the end of the little worlds we build up around us.

I think deep down within humanity there’s a sense in which we’d like the End to happen on our watch – sure, science reckons the universe will die gazillions of years after we’ve all passed on, but we keep on coming up with cataclysmic scenarios that will hasten our passing from this life.

So Christianity has the Rapture and premillennialism and RFID-as-the-Number-of-the-Beast. Science has a bunch of theories; the heat death of the universe, for instance, or the Big Crunch. And then there’s climate change, be it part of a natural cycle or accelerated by the activities of mankind. A meteor strike, like the one that took out the dinosaurs. Or maybe we’ll face a real technopocalypse, like the panicked frenzies surrounding the Y2K bug, or nanotechnologists’ theorising about the Grey Goo scenario.

Then there are comets. In 1066 Halley’s comet hung in the sky, four times the size of Venus, signalling the Battle of Hastings and the death of Anglo-Saxon England. When Halley made its 1910 tour of Earth, there were fearful newspaper reports about the possibility of millions dying of cyanogen poisoning as the result of passing through the tail of the comet. And when Hale-Bopp turned up in 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult took a mass-suicide assisted trip to the spaceship they believed was following it.

And then there’s plague. I think I’ve been around for the latest wave of death-by-scary-diseases frights – Salmonelle, Ebola, BSE, now its Bird ‘flu, and let’s face it, if the AIDS crisis in Africa doesn’t have apocalyptic overtones to it, I don’t know what does. Estimates put the European death toil of the Black Death of 1347-50 as up to a third of the population, with more worldwide – and this was on top of the little Ice Age, which had major effects on the human population for the following 400 years. The Spanish ‘Flu of 1918 wiped out between 25 and 50 million people worldwide – right on top of World War I, the war that saw the end of the 19th century world and that lead directly to World War II, which pretty much put a stake through the corpse of the old Europe.

Yeah. World War II. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Aushwitz. Dresden. The rape of Nanking. Japanese prison camps. Suddenly industrialised genocide and nuclear weapons emphasised the possibility that carnage on a grand, even worldwide scale, were possible. We entered the nuclear age, culminating in such reassuring events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, and Ronnie Reagan’s laser-beams-from-space ideas. I remember when they said they were developing a Star Wars program. That sounds a lot cooler than it was when you’re the type of kid who wanted to grow up to be Han Solo.

Some would say that this is all very maudlin, and it makes me feel very small in the face of it all. On the other hand…Well, that’s another post


In Memory of Sophie Lancaster

I wrote this a while back, on the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. As today would have been Sophie Lancaster’s birthday, I thought it was worth a repost.

Back in 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend were attacked and beaten in Rossendale, Lancashire. Sophie subsequently died from her injuries at the age of 20. The motive for the attack? Sophie and her boyfriend were goths.

I remember the news of this attack breaking, and being shocked at the senselessness of it all. That senselessness has lead to August 24, the anniversary of Sophie’s death, being commemorated as the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in a world where the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is necessary, the day is worth remembering.

While labels can sometimes be used positively – consolidating a community, perhaps, or drawing together those with an affinity to each other – they’re also a curse. Too much of our worth can come from labels, superficial tags that can’t possibly represent the whole person, and at some point that can become dangerous. The teenagers who attacked Sophie and her boyfriend were living under a label, culture and mindset that saw ‘moshers’ as The Other, aliens to be attacked rather than fellow humans with different preferences in fashion. And while it’s horrifying that musical taste should become a life-and-death issue, it’s sadly unsurprising when we’ve been spending years killing each other over race, religion, gender, sexuality… Too often we base our labels around what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and when we do, bad things inevitably happen.

(Of course, this affects public policy too. In the wake of the UK riots, politicians were quick to blame things on criminality, dismissing such issues as poverty and a breakdown in authority. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it’s still a them-and-us mentality.)

So maybe there’s an opportunity today; to listen to a genre of music we’ve never bothered with before, to chat with someone outside our clique, to rise above our labels and comfort zones. Because no-one should die because of what’s on their iPod.

PS. It’s just occurred to me that this story has thematic links with Deborah Bryan’s excellent but heart-rending posts on bullying over at The Monster in Your Closet…

World Toilet Day 2012


So, it’s World Toilet Day. Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

I mean, I’m assuming that most people reading this have access to a toilet. Heck, I have two. My major DIY success story is that I once fixed one of them. Toilets are, frankly, something I take for granted.

And yet World Toilet Day isn’t a silly, random celebration, it’s deadly serious. 2.5 billion people don’t have access to safe, clean toilet facilities, something like a third of the world’s population. From the comfort of my two-toilet house in Britain, this is scarcely believable; for many people in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa it’s a day-to-day reality.

I guess the thing that shocked me most about all this was the ramifications beyond simply spending a penny. This lack of toilets disproportionately affects women – girls start their menstrual cycle and end up missing school because of the lack of hygienic facilities; women are raped because relieving themselves in ‘privacy’ (at night, or out in the open with no-one around) leaves them vulnerable. I knew that lack of sanitation leads to disease, but these wider issues make me look at my toilets with new eyes – it’s not just about hygiene, it’s about equality and safety and a future.

That’s why initiatives such as Toilet Twinning are so important – they can do something about a situation that is, frankly, unacceptable. And yes, there’s a bit of a stigma around talking about toilets, but politeness shouldn’t take priority over survival. I mean, I’m twitchy about using the official hashtag for the day because it uses ‘bad’ language, but some things are more important than taboos.

So look upon your toilet with renewed respect. It is, after all, World Toilet Day.

Remembrance Day 2012

94 years ago, in a railway carriage in the north of France, the war to end all wars was ended with signatures on a piece of paper. The fighting was over, technically, and for those who survived the nightmare of the previous four years it was the start of a tidal wave of emotion – joy, relief, exhaustion, numbness. They were going home.

Only twenty years later, and the insanity would begin again, Blitz and Blitzkrieg and Dresden and Hiroshima. And after that, Korea, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan… And with every one of these, another list of the fallen, another reason to wear a poppy, red or white. Or, I guess, the freedom not to wear a poppy at all, to remember in your own way. Some might want to forget, and who are we to deny them?

At 11:00, the country will fall silent, because silence and dignity are perhaps the only ways to approach the enormity of what’s being remembered. Perhaps with distance from the original Armistice, we’re starting to lose sight of that – the poppy runs the risk of becoming a Shibboleth rather than a symbol of mourning, and that carries with it the danger of making it a fashion accessory, or a form of self-expression (as argued in this article).

But today isn’t about us, is it? “We will remember them”, that’s the key quote, the reason we’ll stop and reflect later this morning. If it becomes about us, our self-expression, we start to forget them, the troops that were sent out: those who died, those who returned, those who are still out there. We forget the medical needs of those who come home with terrible injuries. We forget PTSD. We forget that ex-forces personnel face issues that often lead to homelessness or prison. We forget poverty. We forget why we remember in the first place.

Today, nations will fall silent. Elsewhere, guns will still be firing. And we will remember.

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The Million Puppet March, CBeebies and Why Kids TV is Important

It’s a cold Autumn day. Half of my family have been laid low by flu and so we’re having a chilled afternoon, gathered around a DVD of the children’s show Something Special. If you’re not a parent, the joys of Mr. Tumble may have passed you by, but trust me – Something Special, and it’s parent channel CBeebies, are jewels in the crown of British broadcasting.

See, Something Special sees presenter Justin Fletcher (who deserves a knighthood) teaching disabled children the Makaton sign language while a clown called Mr. Tumble and his family provide the comedy. And it’s brilliant, partly because it’s creative but, more importantly, it gets disabled people on TV. That happens less than it should, and given that hate crimes against disabled people are on the increase, a show like Something Special is important; vital even.

And right now a group of kids are playing the show’s theme song and I’m welling up and it’s ridiculous because I’m a big hairy 35-year-old, but there you go: Something Special is something special.

I wanted to say this, because over the Atlantic in Washington DC, a million puppets will be marching to protect publicly funded broadcasting. Why puppets? Because Mitt Romney’s comments about cutting funding to PBS threatens, by extension, Sesame Street. Cue a million viral Facebook posts featuring Big Bird, but there’s a serious point to be made – shows like Something Special and Sesame Street are important. Not all children have the same chances in life. Not all children go to the top schools. And while the response by some to this may be dismissive and political, I bet very few of the millions of kids who loved Justin Fletcher or Jim Henson grew up to feel the same way.

So march on, puppets, and may CBeebies and Something Special abd Sesame Streetwin every award available and receive all the funding they need. Because they’re worth it.