Taking issue with the Big Issue

Published by Qmunicate Magazine, 9 April 2008

You've probably seen Jamie around. He sells the Big Issue on Byres Road, and whether you're heading for your eleven o'clock lectures, some shopping or a cup of coffee, he's probably the one you either walk straight past or give £1.50 and some small talk to. As far as Big Issue vendors go, he's quite eccentric – known for his leather jackets and his quiff – and he often seems less subdued than the students he's selling to. “Doing this job can be a laugh,” he says, wiping the rain off his forehead as we dodge a crowd of umbrellas. “But there is a certain input of ignorance in the west end, people can be quite patronising and ingenuine – they sometimes ask questions to be polite, but then don't listen to the answers I give. Selling the magazine can be good though, most people in the west end are friendly.”

It's around eight o'clock when Jamie sells his last Big Issue of the day, and after often twelve hours of selling, he catches the subway to something like home. He currently stays with a friend in Townhead; a grey, concrete paving slab of redevelopment near Cowcaddens, from which he commutes daily.

Jamie's life reads like a Hollywood script with the wrong ending. He was born and raised in the Drumchapel district of Glasgow, and left school when he was 15. “I think that so many young people from areas like that face a glass ceiling when it comes to education in their chances in life,” adding, “so I spent ten years travelling the world. I lived in lots of different places in Europe doing odd jobs, just making enough money to move on again – Munich, Istanbul, Morocco. It just became my life.” When he returned, Jamie then began studying for a degree in social and economic history as a mature student. “I was the first person in my family to go to university. Nobody suggested it, nobody expected it.”

However, when he was in his early thirties, he found it difficult to find real work, and spent years in low-paid jobs. But he shared a flat with his girlfriend, where they both paid their share of the rent, and he got by. Then one day, his girlfriend left to visit her family in Dublin, and never returned. At around the same time, Jamie's landlord wanted to redevelop the area and then let rooms out to the new Polish workers. “I didn't really mind,” says Jamie, taking a drag off a cigarette. “I've been a guest worker in lots of other countries so I know what it's like to come to a new place and look for somewhere to stay. So I lost my flat, and the rest is history.”

Jamie's been without a permanent home for over a year now, and he got the idea of selling from another homeless man. “Before I knew it, I had my own badge and it's a good opportunity, but selling the Big Issue should only be a stop-gap in between different circumstances. I know people who've been selling for fourteen or fifteen years, since the Big Issue began in 1991, but I'd feel very cheeky if I was still doing this for another five.” He's optimistic for the future, but admits that it's difficult to progress with so many barriers. “There are all sorts of obstacles, the main one being the lack of a permanent address, which immediately prevents you from getting beyond an application form for most jobs. No fixed address, no chance of a job; no job, no chance of a fixed address.”

“I've tried to find work in restaurants, hotels, but I'd much rather be learning again. Still, an address is needed by most educational institutions, which is why I've applied four times for teacher training. I think I'd be a good teacher because of my outlook and life experience. I'm not giving up,” he adds.

On our way down to the Tennents bar, Jamie greets another seller, and tells me that “there's no professional rivalry at all, all of us are in the same boat and have either temporary homes or live in hostels around the city. We help each other out where we need to.” The Big Issue sellers in the west end share a camaraderie, exchanging pointers on new housing incentives, job opportunities and occasionally, going out for drinks just as students do. “The only problem lies with,” Jamie adds, “the Romanian sellers.”

Jamie reflects a recent tide of disgruntlement which has been seeping into the change bags of Glasgow's local Big Issue sellers. Ever since Romania and Bulgaria entered the European Union in January 2007, a new demographic has crash-landed on Glasgow – and in this case, our Big Issue sellers are feeling its tremors. “They give the Big Issue a bad name,” argues Jamie. “They can't engage with the public because they don't speak a word of English and they're not local.”
Another Byres Road vendor added, “we try to take it up with the [Big Issue] office, but it's dismissed as racism. Political correctness? Political crap.”

As many people understand, the Big Issue serves to give local homeless people the chance to work themselves out of poor conditions, but as the Big Issue Scotland national sales manager Michael Luby describes, it's homelessness in general they are trying to find a solution for. “When the EU expanded its borders, in many ways they left us to pick up the pieces. Over 7,000 Romanians have arrived here in the past year. They expected the streets to be paved with gold, but they aren't, and a lot of them found quickly found it difficult to find a home, just like the local sellers did. In that way, the Romanians met our criteria, and nobody who meets our criteria will ever be turned away. If their only other options are begging or stealing, I'm proud that we've given them a chance.” But Michael concedes that the Big Issue has attracted negative publicity for doing so.

This isn't the first time the Big Issue has been vulnerable to criticism. In Oxford, there were around ninety registered Big Issue vendors – quite a large number for a relatively small city. For the local vendors, it was difficult to sell effectively because of the disproportionate number of sellers to streets to sell on, and they found this to the detriment of their own profits.

Michael also admits that there's an increased number of “blaggers with mags”, or fraudulent sellers, since the European enlargement. “This is something we work with the police on. We have an outreach team who check badges and who stop people begging whilst selling, which is against our rules. We have a very rigid code of conduct, but there will always be a minority of rogue sellers.”

Oddly, when Jamie was giving his interview, there wasn't a single Romanian seller on the street. Apparently, some members of the Big Issue's 'outreach team' had come to the west end to check badges that day, so a few of them hadn't turned up. “They didn't want to get caught. They'd been informed by someone,” claims Jamie. “By who, I don't know.”

In a largely depoliticised society where popular culture is more prone to discuss Pepsi v Coke than most wider issues, many people simply pop up their umbrellas to shelter from the drizzly political weather. But if you buy Big Issues – make sure you know exactly where the money is going, or else the meagre profits of many in “homelessness or vulnerable housing” kicked into the long grass.

Totally Tongue Tied

Published by Qmunicate Magazine, 25 February 2008

There are many things to write about in Glasgow – the International Film Festival has just drawn to its end, with the Comedy Festival on the city's damp horizons (the 5-day forecast is still bleak, sorry folks); but there is scarcely a topic so universal in our academic lives that it is any observer's crime not to pay it some sort of attention. So it's within my great taboo -breaking pleasure to introduce a subject which is hardly ever on everyone's lips – the mobile-clicking, room-gazing, paper-rufflingly awkward seminar silences, probably taking place right at this moment just down the road.

I'm reminded of my 'first time' on every occasion I set foot in the first seminars of a new semester. I'd just worked out when the traffic lights would change on the Byres Road crossing, and I was still wiping away the crumbs from the free cake stall when I found the right room, which turned out to be the venue for a scene Harold Pinter never wrote. I think we were actually studying Pinter at the time, but the irony of the situation was lost on us all – the silence stretched out until the tutor arrived, unhindered, for what seemed like an ocean of time.

Week followed week, and the silences were given a bit more depth with the notable creation of inventive silence-slaying tactics. Our class began gazing around the room, aimlessly tapping buttons on our mobiles, ruffling sheets of paper, or prolonging the experience of opening our bags in order to replace conversation with movement and noise, and to appear otherwise occupied – too busy to talk. The ten seconds we were given to introduce ourselves were quickly forgotten, and over the weeks, attendances began to suffer, and people began to arrive late to soften the blow. But by this time, the hanging, visible awkwardness seemed annoying and unnatural.

Despite the fact my seminars were for arts subjects, I felt like I'd walked out of the building with a master's degree in human psychology. Seminars do grow more relaxed from term to term, but they're a clear microcosm of the vast and ugly obstacles that divide one stranger from the next – a cornerstone of any advanced society; one in which work and leisure are rarely mixed, and one in which we're fed individualism to the extent that it becomes blurred with isolation.

Now, if you'll excuse me – I'm running purposefully late for my history tutorial.

A travel writing competition

British Airways Writing Comp - 21 November 2007

This is my entry into the first British Airways travel writing competition. The winner will be commissioned to go on an expenses-paid travel assignment for their 'High Life' magazine, and the resulting 1800-word feature will be published next year.

Write a 500-word feature covering any element of travel.

"Travel – travel in the narrowest sense of the word, as I know it – is a world apart from holidaying. Travel is a challenge that first spits you out into an alien civilisation, then tries to drown you in the perhaps murky waters of other cultures, and finally, when you resurface, gasping for breath, it gives you only foreign air to survive. It is the cultural equivalent of the bends, but from the departure lounge, to the check-in desk, from the goodbye drinks, to the foreign greetings, the challenge offers an incomparable lust for adventure.

The most gratifying element of travel is, for me, the interaction with other travellers. Last year I met some American backpackers at a hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. One day, we visited a the small town of Lauterbrunnen, in the Alps, and that day I recognised that despite being complete strangers, we all shared something in common – an invisible string which bound us together, and to every other traveller in the world. I came to realise that those seeking to escape a community, those who travel, create a community of their own in doing so; a thread connecting people striving to do things differently, one which makes tracks over any national and cultural boundaries, and embraces the most relentless passion for discovery, not just of other places, but of other people. Without intending to write a utopian hymn, the experience of interaction between travellers is one that changes your perception of humanity for life, where the artificial walls of nationality crumble in one benevolent, inclusive, global society.

The community is one which embodies three different traits – one based on empathy; the passion and enthusiasm to acknowledge a patchwork of different peoples, and in doing so, adding width your own global consciousness, another despising those who spend lots of money on package holidaying, only to check into somewhere with all the comforts of home – with the designer suitcases, the sunscreen and the ignorance to boot.

Interaction between travellers is riddled with cooperation and respect of all kinds, which can take the form of exchanging maps, recommending places to visit, communal cooking, and talking over bunk beds until the sun rises. An interesting aspect of the interaction is the lack of permanence – the checking in and checking out, the coming and going – which is where it stops short of friendship, as because the inclination of travelling is simply not to stop, it is silently accepted.

The third common trait is the belief that no matter how much time spent submerged in the swamp of alien cultures, you always feel cleaner when you come out on the other side again."

In no more than 100 words, review somewhere you have stayed.

"Budapest is a tale of two cities. The two boroughs and the bridge which connects them, are the visualisation of a post-Communism timeline in a history lesson – the developed, and the developing. In Buda, vast office buildings create a modern, business-littered skyline, where western-minded men scuttle around carrying briefcases and sipping lattes. On the other side of the river, in Pest, the homeless lay, begging and broken on the curb outside MacDonalds and chain fashion shops – which comprise the first floor of the grey, Stalinist buildings. It is a city of extraordinary contrast."

Skip Surfing USA

Published by Glasgow Guardian, 7 October 2007
The freegan community across the Atlantic share similar stories, with blogger ‘Madeline’ explaining how “with friends this week, I served Rondele cheese with crackers, followed by a pasta with tomato and eggplant sauce, a lovely big salad, and strawberries with whipped cream for dessert. The following morning I had a big glass of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, then an omelette with shitake mushrooms and fresh sage, accompanied by whole-grain sourdough toast.”

There are freegans all over the world, but New York City has emerged as a freegan hub, boasting a vast community of dedicated followers and volunteers. Earlier this year, following NYU’s class of 2007 graduation, a group of around thirty men and women assembled to take advantage of the end-of-year move-out – and pocketed free televisions, desk lamps and other objects for re-use.

Most were there in response to the NYC-based freegan website (http://www.freegan.info/), which posts details and listings of such events and rendezvous ‘dumpster diving’ points in the city, as well as information for followers across the globe. The site, run by volunteers, has become a database for all things freegan – including a recalled products and food safety alerts list (updated daily), a reuse/recycle directory and even an ‘internship and opportunities’ section. The website also posts a fanzine, a 34-page tirade against capitalism and globalisation, with the occasional quirky cartoon – sort of a bizarre marriage of Karl Marx and Quentin Blake. They claim that there are “at least 400 to 500” freegans living in New York who are part of their network alone.

But Adam Weissman, activist and co-creator of freegan.info, is however quick to dispel the notion that his movement is a brainchild, instead preferring to emphasise the collective nature of society. “We did not begin the freegan movement. The website is simply an organisation that exists to promote freeganism and to teach people how to live as freegans. The term ‘freegan’ goes back to (I think) the 1980s, and the practices and ideas it refers to are even older.” Speaking to the New York Times, he continued, “it has resonated around the world with people who love community, cooperation, and our planet. We believe that the survival of life on this planet requires a shift to the replacement of industrialism, capitalism, and globalism with a society that consumes less and shares more.”

The success of the movement in New York may also be owed by the quantity and quality of New York waste. According to the Environment Protection Agency, 245 million tons of municipal solid waste has been produced by individuals, businesses and institutions since 2005 across the whole of North America, equating to 4.5 pounds per person per day. New York’s equivalent figure is 7.1 pounds. Poverty statistics are just as alarming – one third of the city’s children live below the poverty line, every day 2,500 are turned away from food pantries and soup kitchens and 400,000 New Yorkers suffer from “moderate or severe hunger”, according to the website’s own findings.

Freegan Fighters

Published by Glasgow Guardian, 7 October 2007

They strike in the early hours, while most of the city sleeps; sometimes alone, sometimes in crowds of a dozen. Anyone is a suspect. Put this paper down and have a look at the nearest stranger – could they be? Meet my new favourite community of people – Freegans.

You might think that consuming waste food lies deep in the preserve of the impoverished or daring, but it's also a rather practical alternative to extortionate weekly shopping at Somerfield and Iceland, as many Glasgow students and residents have found. Supermarket waste bins in particular have become free-of-charge vending machines in the last few years, because of the excess amount of unsold food and goods thrown out to waste at the end of the last shift – their lids forced open and their contents raided by night by the munchie-craving. But it didn't stop there. The practise has become so popular throughout Britain that it has snowballed into a phenomenon known as 'Freeganism' – and the ethical backlash against British supermarkets has been rattling teacups in their head offices ever since.

The Freegan lifestyle involves salvaging discarded, unspoiled food from supermarket waste bins – food that has passed its expiration date, but is still edible and nutritious. They salvage the food, not always because they are hungry, poor or homeless, but sometimes as a political statement against the over-disposability of consumerism.

“To be honest, part of the appeal is that it has to be done in the cover of darkness, and it's a lot more exciting than your average supermarket experience,” comments Ailsa Kay, 21, a Glasgow student. “However, the more I frequented the bins, the more food I discovered. It made me determined to undermine huge supermarkets by using their waste and not spending a penny more than I really needed to.”

The Marks and Spencer bins on Ashton Lane in particular served as Freegan youth clubs last year, with sometimes up to a dozen taking anything they liked the look of – giddily burrowing through plastic bags like a bunch of seven-year-olds dizzy on lemonade. At best, you could come out with anything – currys, juice, new potatoes, pies, salads, sandwich fillers, Yorkshire puddings, (including my favourite – two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, topped with a creamy white wine sauce) all hitting their expiration on the day or the day after; at worst, a few loaves of bread to cram into the freezer. So why buy their crap if you can eat their scrap?

“The first time I went I found an Irish soda bread and a chocolate Swiss roll, both still sealed in their packaging and their sell-by date was the following day,” says Ailsa. “It's a great feeling when you manage to feed yourself and a group of friends without spending a penny, and re-using food that would otherwise just be taken to a landfill site. I've come across many characters in the early hours – some in suits, some in kilts, some curious and some who either look extremely confused or disgusted.”

However, the Freegan party has recently been busted by a harsher enforcement of wastage policies. Marks & Spencers have begun locking their bins at night, and are known to now purposely open the packaging of waste food, to prevent people like Ailsa from taking it. “It's common sense to know what's edible. I find it particularly frustrating when you find a bin choked with food, only to discover that an employee has slashed open the packaging, making the food unusable.”

A supervisor from Marks & Spencers claimed that new health rules had been in place for a number of years, but only recently had head offices begun issuing preventative measures to combat freeganism. A moral pulse exists however, in their 24-hour stores, who occasionally have food waste picked up by the charity Rainbow, and distributed to the homeless. This progressive agreement is exempt from such wastage policies as the waste in 24-hour supermarkets is thrown out minutes after being removed from the shelf, when it is left for sometimes a full day at room temperature in stores with opening hours. The Greggs bakery on Byres Road was also until recently partial to giving away a few unsold sausage rolls and on mornings they are collected – but now the delivery driver is explicitly forbidden from giving any food away, on the same health grounds.

After the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, I wrote a long letter to the Co-op I used to work in – challenging the wastage policy of our store and suggesting that some of the waste be sent over to the worst-off parts in East Asia, or at least be put to some other use. One of my points was: “Surely starving people would appreciate countless loaves of bread and other goods, regardless of their expiry dates, and would rather have their lives saved and have a stomach bug than starve to death.” All I received was a chuckle and when I suggested that they send the letter to their head office, my manager said that no-one would read it. The following day we threw away twelve stacks of bread and five full bags of snack foods, all of which had 'gone off' over the Christmas closing period, and all of which was delivered to a landfill site – 34 miles away. And to achieve what, exactly?

When it comes to food waste, shops and supermarkets have two options – one costs something and achieves nothing, the other costs nothing and achieves something. I've not set out to flood these pages with hyperbole, and I've tried to avoid churning out yet another hymn to recycling. The redistribution and availability of unsold food in Glasgow should be given the green light, or even debated in the relevant circles – when it is a glaring truth that our supermarkets cannot contain the issue by simply locking their bins.

Down and out... on MySpace.

Truth Telling E-zine - 9 January 2006
Glasgow University Magazine - 14 April 2006

MySpace may be the preserve of wannabe models and nerdy teenagers (my MySpace name is theunknownsoldier1) but as of January 2006, the number of MySpace-ists hit 47 million. That’s enough people to replace the entire population of Italy. Imagine that - the People’s Republic of MySpace, with spear-gripping indigenous tribes like the 28,000-strong ‘I Luv Pink’ clan and hardline political forces such as the ‘Decriminalise Weed Club’ (population 5,543) and the ‘Republicans Are Better In Bed’ Party (5,996). The State owns the mass media and the arts (‘MySpace Records Vol.1’ is out now) and inhabitants are kept updated by web bulletins from their Head of State/Webmaster – who goes solely by the name of ‘Tom’.

Tom Anderson, the 30-year-old techie-genius who co-founded MySpace, sold the site to media-hawk Rupert Murdock for $580m last July. Afterwards, he sent out a weepy (and very American) bulletin to all of his then-22,500,000 friends declaring: “Many of you have asked about NewsCorp buying MySpace … everyone seems scared that MySpace is going to change. I’m not leaving, I’m still going to make the decisions about the site and I’m not going to let things suck. MySpace has been an important part of my life for almost two years now. I know it’s as important to others as it is for me. I won’t let it get jacked up.”

Click onto MySpace. You’ll find 47 million people with their own profile pages, over 500,000 bands and solo artists (including a 63-year-old Jimi Hendrix?) and almost 2 million discussion groups. I think I’d throw up if I knew how many hits MySpace.com received every day. For those of you who don’t know, MySpace is a web service that allows people to connect with other people. It trumpets itself for “making ordinary people famous and famous people ordinary” (it’s true – pop stars like Ashlee Simpson and Nelly have public accounts). Users can find friends by searching their email address, real names or their MySpace names, and they can create ‘profiles’ filled with their interests, their biography, their top eight ‘friends’ and who they’d like to meet.

It’s an online palace where the vain meet the shy, the lonely meet the culture-vultures and the stars meet the fans. On a typical 5-minute scroll through the mazes of online egos, I found a young female singer humming about her new folk album, a dyslexic narcotic blogging about his concerns with democracy and a young girl with as many spot-the-difference webcam pictures of herself to cover the surface area of Argentina.

According to Tom’s own statistics, the average registered MySpace user spends an hour and a half on the site per week. Some of my friends log on more than quadruple that time per day – but what is the appeal? Can we imagine the hypothetical MySpace island, governed by Tom himself – a society of many different cultures, a society of many different talents, where everyone is nice, eloquent and civilised? Perhaps it’s this notion of utopia that keeps people logging on and blogging on. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go and reply to my friend from Tokyo.

Does politics matter? Not to some.

Website - 5 January 2006

The closest thing my workplace gets to politics is when old women ask for “fruit not made by Frenchies” or when the mere presence of an asian person generates a sort of visceral racism amongst the till women. Most of the time, people are engaged in one-dimensional conversations about their own lives; what they do today, tomorrow, last week – no one talks about Sharon’s plan for Gaza or Iraq … politics is completely off the verbal menu. I still remember the time when an assistant manager dismissed my letter about how we could help the victims of the tsunami as “unworkable” – and I haven’t forgiven her since. It’s quite surreal to jump from the politically vibrant common room (we once managed to rid our venders of the Coca Cola-made water ‘Dasani’ – purely by flyposting socialist rhetoric on the noticeboard) – to the depoliticised closets of workplaces, where people are more likely to be talking about Pepsi v Cola than Blair v Cameron. I’m getting the cultural bends, but it’s interesting.

Ban alcohol! If you believe in drugs prohibition, why not?

Truth Telling E-zine - 2 January 2006

2005 was a bad year for the drugs legalisation squad. The columns of journalists like Johann Hari are yellowing, the Legalise Cannabis Party’s few remaining ‘No Victim No Crime’ pin badges are being flogged at yard sales and the progressive White Paper on the semi-legalisation of cannabis has been U-turned and amended to death. The resurgent anti-drug tabloid headlines made supermodel Kate Moss and indie-rocker Pete Doherty the inadvertent couple of the year – they began accumulating enough column inches to cover the Great Wall after Kate was pictured – shock horror – rolling up a fiver to snort the white stuff into her skinny nostrils.

But millions awoke to 2006 with a dry mouth and a thumping headache, with a pint (of sweet H2O) sitting by their beds. From the teenagers being carried into casualty to have their stomachs pumped to the vomitathons every Friday and Saturday night in our streets all over the country – we have to accept there is a national problem with booze. But with all these things happening, where are the prohibitionists? Everyone who believes that cannabis, coke and heroin should be driven underground by countless police hours and government initiatives (which comes out of your own pocket, by the way) – why not ban alcohol too?

Of course, everyone knows that, although the effects of alcohol can be real and destructive – prohibition is even worse. In the early twentieth century, a policy of alcohol prohibition was tried in the U.S. – but few people stopped drinking. What it did was hand over a hugely lucrative industry to armed gangsters, who drowned the country with guns, corrupted the police and claimed more victims than the alcohol itself. A prohibition policy was also tried in 17th Century Cromwellian England, with the same adverse effects.

The same truths apply to global drugs prohibition. Ever since the disgraced Richard Nixon unleashed the ‘War on Drugs’ little over thirty years ago, a violent and naïve campaign to “eradicate” drug supply and usage has done nothing but increase usage by a factor of almost 50. At the minute, drug supply comprises a stonking 8% of world trade. In Colombia, 40% of the economy is dependant upon drugs trade abroad; the country has been crushed by the US-imposed constraints on South America – leading to a corruption of both the political and legal systems.

Right now, 2,500 British troops have been sent to secure (or, destroy) one of the only sources of income for some of the poorest people on earth. In the Afghan province of Helmand, opium fields yield just enough to feed the families of the farmers who manage them. British Army Commanders told one newspaper that they expected opium farmers to stage a violent uprising, when their livelihoods are wrecked and they face starvation.

In a recent ICM poll, 69% of the British public agreed that “[drugs] supply should be regulated by the government or other drugs companies” – in a word, legalised. So the next time you are arguing with a prohibitionist, ask them why they are not in favour of banning alcohol. I guarantee they will give these reasons: “Millions of people already use it, it can be used in moderation, prohibition does more harm than good” – and the same can be said for cannabis, coke and heroin.

Facing the enemy - in my home town.

6th Magazine - 6 December 2005

I casually bulldozed through the human traffic that is carried by my town’s Monday market today. I passed the usual medley of men haggling over shoelaces and kids perusing fake Smarties, rounding the pungent smelling fish stall at the end. Except it wasn’t the end. There was newcomer to the usual market stallers – a group of men stood behind a small wooden table. On the table lay dozens of folded newspapers entitled ‘The Voice of Freedom’. Hmmm, I thought. I glanced at a copy of my dusty ‘Communist Manifesto’ that I planned to read on my imminent bus journey to York. But this looked like a worthy read – probably a fanzine or an ‘underground’ journal or something, or so I thought. “I’ll take one, please,” and handed over 50p to a young skinhead. “Better still if you join,” an older man snarled. The penny had dropped – I gazed down at the paper I’d just bought. The beaming red, white and blue of the BNP logo stared me in the face. A woman came from my right and thrusted a leaflet in my other palm. This one read ‘Islamic Terror Labour Failure – How right was Enoch Powell? How right is Nick Griffin?’ I’d had enough. I fled the scene before you could say ethnic cleansing and crammed the diseased trash in someone’s wheelie bin. I needed a fix; I read Marx from cover to cover as though I were a Communist junkie, all the way to York…

My struggle: Two years of double standards on the shop floor

Website - 7 November 2005

I’ve taken some time off from my meagre chores of replenishing the bacon section and slapping half price stickers on oranges to scribble some notes on the reverse side of some advertising for ‘Jumbo Salted Peanuts’. People around me are contently placing own-brand beans on shelves and mopping up wine spills while the 80s-biased radio is humming Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wouldn’t it be good’ for the thirteenth time over the Co-op airwaves. But if you don’t like new wave music, it gets much worse here.

I applied for a job at Co-op when it was a Safeway store just over two years ago. I over-eagerly wrote my details on an application form that bore the shiny, plastic grins of two ‘workers’, handed my form in and then waited. Within a fortnight I was jogging around with milk dollies in a pathetic effort to please my superiors, but within a few months, my enthusiasm was fading like the colour of my lime green uniform. I’d befriended a few other young people in my position – students who had been working just a few months. One of them jokingly remarked: “I’ve got amnesia. I can’t remember why I applied here.”

Working at my local supermarket has also completely reversed some of my economic views. In two years, I’ve gone from being a ‘free-market freak’ – babbling about efficiency and the importance of profit – to a soft Marxist. My political views have also been dragged over to the left and I now have a problem with authority.

So why did things change? Let me explain. Three people call the shots at my work – the managers. Just below them in the hierarchy are the supervisors – the people in charge of particular departments. Finally, there’s me and the rest of the proletariat, or “the bottom of the barrel” as we are described by the Human Resources Manager. We unload the goods that are delivered from the depot, fill shelves with it and then go home, with a few added menial tasks sandwiched in between. The next day we do the same, starting as early as 7am, finishing as late as midnight. If we finish the job before the end of our shift, we do someone else’s job until we are scheduled to finish. We are granted three (unpaid) breaks per day for a nine-hour shift, and I earn around £170 for a 37-hour week.

And the unwritten rules… we cannot chat – to neither workmates nor friends; we are picked up on things like “working with one hand”; people from the same department cannot take simultaneous breaks; we cannot take more than our allotted breaks; we cannot use mobile phones on the shop floor; we cannot chew on gum; we cannot work together – to name a few.

And here’s the day of a manager: they turn up to work no earlier than 9 o’clock, hold a meeting with supervisors, tally up their profits and costs (incidentally as a store we do quite well). They have no allotted breaks – but this works to their advantage as they are not deducted pay from the breaks they do take (as their breaks are unrecorded). One of my workmates spotted one manager take eighteen breaks in one morning. At around 2pm, they begin filling shelves like the rest of us. They always work in twos (what rule book?) whilst they chomp on Wrigleys (rule book…) and check their mobiles. The manager is paid a fixed wage of £3,000 per month and works less than I do.

For people like me, it is easy to spot inequality, double standards and hypocrisy – we are earning disposable income, not a living. But for people who have made a career out of stacking cheese, it is a lot easier to ignore the issue. A woman I work with has been working here for fourteen years – whenever I raise a conversation about this she ponders me for a moment, before shrugging and sighing “I know…” she continues to open boxes of tomato juice while the managers pocket the receipts upstairs.

The people whose careers are made from this place divide into two groups. In group one are the people who ignore these issues and simply want to earn their living, when in group two are those who view the inequality as something they can skew to their own advantage. Patronage has been an active hobby among the staff at Co-op – one woman who supervises her workers on the Delicatessen is given huge amounts of time off work (to share with the managers) in return for her maintenance of the double standards. Other manager cronies call their customer friends over to have a chat, but are quick to separate us from a casual chat, which we are not entitled to.

In a very real sense, they are stamping out the very things that make mundane jobs bearable. A chat with a colleague, a sneaky fag break – they’re fast becoming rights confined to the dustbin of history. And so now we are faced with the very cold ambiance of the smoking room – the break which a workmate and I share with a couple of managers. “No one talks. There is no morale here. To them we are just human resources, not people,” my friend comments as the two managers vacate the scene, chuckling.

Recently, I found myself voicing these concerns to someone above my level for the very first time. I’d been taking a break, defiantly, with a friend (who was a member of a different department) – we were heading back to work when two managers (the only two working that day) objected to us being on our breaks at the same time. I was about to utter “practice what you preach” but instead, like on so many occasions, I spoke to someone else. My Human Resource Manager listened closely. The essence of his argument was based around maintaining and increasing profits, and the basis of mine was the concept of morale, and how it would improve productivity if we gain more respect. At the end of my “rant” he said: “Why have you not told any of the managers about this?” I replied, “I’m a coward and I want to keep my job.” “Well they definitely think it’s a case of you versus them. Do you want me to mention it?” he said. “That would be nice,” I replied.

But why on earth would they listen? In December last year, I wrote a letter that highlighted my concerns with the large amounts of good food we throw away – I was motivated by the terrible scenes of starvation in the Boxing Day tsunami aftermath. I proposed that we try to distribute the food over there somehow, or at least to the British homeless, rather than have it burnt like we currently do. Indeed, one manager did speak to me about this – only to tell me “it’s more efficient this way” before shredding my letter.

I’ve since found comfort by attempting to organise a workers’ revolution, or a coup. The idea is very much pretend – my workmates and I joke about using trolleys as makeshift trenches and pork pies as weapons. But, if I’m honest, I’d love to fly the red flag over this place.

A very British Friday...

6th Magazine - 26 October 2005

A bartender cracks open a bottle of Bud, taking in the rare ambiance of his shift. An ocean of cider, lager and aftershock is being mopped up by red-shirted cleaners, and the smell of tobacco is pungent.

Shapes of broken glass litter the floor – Smirnoff bottles that have been used as drunken weapons blow around in the car park outside, and the clinking of glass is abundant in the post-binge clear-up of the busiest weekend bar in the quiet market town of Pickering – the Bay Horse.

No pubs here have applied for the extended drinking freedoms granted by HM Government, so for the foreseeable future at least, we can look forward to the weekly madness on Market Place that erupts when bingers are churned out of their drinking palaces at around 11.30pm.

Who really planned 9/11?

Truth Telling E-zine - 22 September 2005

It's a fact. Conspiracy theories are emerging from secret chat rooms and dusty book shelves into public circles. Did Paul McCartney die in 1967? Was Hitler hiding in the Amazon jungle until the mid seventies? There’s new Mulder and Scullys investigating everywhere.

According to a MORI poll conducted in 1997, just 19% of the public thought that Princess Diana’s death was no accident. Just a year later, a Sunday Times survey showed that this figure had climbed two-fold. The most recent poll, courtesy of the Daily Express, found that 94% now believe that Diana was murdered. It may appear obvious that those polled were not the same people, but the discrepancies are remarkable.

A similar trend runs through the 9/11 conspiracy, which claims that President Bush and his junta planned and executed the attacks in New York. The tragedy was a gift to conspirators everywhere. Conspirators on www.oilempire.us commented on the events as “the American Reichstag Fire” and the “birth of the Fourth Reich”. A 2004 poll by CNN found that 90% believed that there was some kind of government cover-up, and the mere suggestion of a plot was taboo in the immediate years that followed the disaster (when a similar majority supported the Patriot Act).

Even after the London bombings in July, the British public are beginning to mutter the convenience of Blair’s whereabouts (safe in Gleneagles) and there are unofficial reports that an Israeli minister was warned about the attacks before they actually happened. Conspirators also point to Labour’s unimpressive election win (35% of the vote) as motivation for MI6’s arrangement of 7/7. The consequences – the public back ID cards and detention without trial, and political opponents can hold no popular ground if they continue to disagree. Blair had simply given up on his “imperative for national security” rhetoric, and had taken a leaf from Dubya’s colouring book. Our Prime Minister knew he could reverse his soaring unpopularity in a single day – and within a week he was being praised by Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy on the Commons floor.

The wave of mistrust has developed both sides of the Atlantic. In America: a majority of black Americans believe that the CIA encourages drug dealers to sell crack-cocaine in inner cities, with a third believing that the AIDS virus was manufactured by the U.S. government; Almost half believe that the government withholds information regarding extra-terrestrial life; four-fifths believe that “others” assisted Lee Harvey Oswald in Kennedy’s assassination and four-fifths of all Americans believe that the U.S. militar withholds information about Gulf War syndrome.
Ever since the dramatic Watergate revelations by Woodward and Bernstein, Western society has increasingly viewed our governments as dishonest and self-serving. As a result, election turnouts have dwindled.

The rise in suspicion has been met with a sharp fall in religious belief (and particularly Christianity). The significance? We no longer depend upon an omnipotent being, pulling our strings from heaven. In this mundane, post-religious world we live in, we instead rely on elaborate theories for comfort. What some believers fail to do is face the cold reality of secularisation. That sometimes, horrific things happen, often with no reason at all.

[POSTSCRIPT: It seems a lot of people liked this article, as it can also be found at www.thetruthmagazine.com - as well as the e-zine it was written for.]

James Dean, Marilyn Manson and the Hollywood myth

Website - 11 September 2005

Ever since the days of James Dean puffing on filter tips, observers have always assumed that Hollywood promotes, perpetuates and even glorifies smoking throughout the world. However, recent research suggests the exact opposite to this embedded myth. It is evidence that this popular argument is as the icons who smoked in swanky convertibles.

You could expect such findings to come from biased groups. But, dramatically and ironically, the research is courtesy of the American College of Chest Physicians – and it was published in their annual journal ‘Chest’. Their conclusions are based on all top ten U.S. Box Office movies made after 1990.

According to ‘Chest’, one in five lead characters were smokers (roughly the proportion of smokers in America). Around half of these were from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and the number of “bad guy” smokers outnumbers the “good guys” by 2:1.

Let’s look at some examples. In the film ‘Blade’, the evil vampire, played by Stephen Dorff, smokes, while the film’s hero, Wesley Snipes’ character Eric Brooks, does not. In the blockbuster ‘Face/Off’, Nicholas Cage plays both the good guy, Sean Archer, and the bad guy, Castor Troy, but only Troy smokes. In ‘Mission Impossible’, the villain, Jim Phelps, played by Jon Voigt, smokes, while Tom Cruise’s character, the clean-living hero Ethan Hunt, is never seen with a cigarette.

Dr Karan Omidvari, who led the research team, commented: “Most investigators have concluded that smoking is portrayed as glamorous and positive, but our study shows that the exact opposite is true. Some studies have also found that movies influence minority groups to smoke. We have contradicted these findings as well.” So rent a film, kick back and light up - secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t the silver screen that bought that Marlboro packet.

You can see where they’re coming from. I smoke, and I don’t blame art for my habit. One of my reservations lies in the study’s conclusion. Are people only influenced by the “good guys” in films? Surely some “bad” traits, such as rebellion or risk-taking have appeal with many young people. This glossy new study seems as subjective and parochial as the contrary research it criticises.

To find out if would-be smokers really are influenced by film would require a deep, cogent psychological study, on many people rather than movies themselves. We find ourselves returning to the debates over whether movies, video games or Marilyn Manson directly prompt violence and killing.

Marilyn Manson bore the must of the prejudiced U.S. media following the Columbine shootings of 1999. Critics hung blame on Manson for allegedly “inspiring” acts of violence with his dark lyrics and music. In his defence, he said, “The first few people on earth needed no books, movies, games or music to inspire cold-blooded murder.”

In a “free country” where most media facilities are owned by government sycophants, Hollywood serves to instill an alternative truth. Books, games and music serve the same purpose. If America is “one commercial away from anarchy”, are they only one blockbuster away from complete subservience? And which is most important?

Anti-social behaviour - the national excuse

Website - 4 September 2005

You’ve got to give credit where it’s due. The Government has succeeded in bashing the yob culture that soaks Britain’s streets in Strongbow, but they have inadvertently created a counter-culture similar to that of a Communist state. The new powers given to residents perpetuate great mistrust, bitterness and incrimination between neighbours living on council estates. Except, innocent people aren’t kidnapped by secret police, they are visited by community support workers of the Housing Association.

Of course, the powers can work to an advantage – in extreme cases where people are fed hundreds of decibels every night through paper walls, or where racial harassment affects your personal security. But in the wrong hands, they can make a resident’s life a great misery.
According to the ‘Anti-Social Behaviour – Together We Can Beat It!’ pamphlet that passed through every council house letterbox earlier this year, anti-social behaviour can be defined as “any behaviour that causes nuisance or annoyance to neighbours”. Some examples of this rather vague criteria are identified as loud music, shouting and arguing, harassment, verbal abuse, vandalism etc etc. However, some examples defy logic, and liberty.

Fear not, council residents! The Housing Association will now ensure your protection from “dog barking” and “untidy gardens”. The pamphlet describes what actions the Association can take, including legal action. But it stresses however that, “eviction is always a last resort”. Always a relief for people whose neighbours have the contact number on speed dial.

The war on anti-social behaviour was something that was originally targetted on the drunk and the violent. The concern has since exploded into quiet streets in small towns, where children build dens and draw in chalk. Ordinary people are feeling the shrapnel from this current moral panic.

During the ‘Red Terror’ in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, people incriminated their neighbours as suspected terrorists to the KGB. Innocent men were kidnapped and families were slaughtered – history recognises that personal vendettas and envious families were motives for blame. The KGB bosses actively encouraged incrimination – quotas were even drawn up to appease the paranoid dictator, Joseph Stalin.

The witch hunts are also an apt example of a fear that governments have exploited to divide their citizens, conquering their power as a revolutionary mass. Forget terrorism – anti-social behaviour is dividing Britons indiscriminately, from black to white, from rags to riches, from man to woman, from chav to rocker.

One of the few purposes the American population serves to the British public is its ability to entertain us with shows like 'Judge Judy' and stories about parents sueing their children. Lose the smile. There is a genuine growing concern that the compensation culture in Britain is proportionally on par with our Atlantic buddies. Furthermore, on the front of the anti-social behaviour pamphlet I have used for this story, it makes clear that it is a "Guide to Customers". Not residents. Is this a road we want to head down?

My London blog

Website - 28 July 2005

It was twenty days after the bloody carnage of 7/7, just six following the sequel of the previous Thursday and five days since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. But as I stepped onto my first of six underground journeys trips (St. Pancras to Oxford Circus), there was very little to tell of all this.

Of course, the undeniable tension around King’s Cross and in the tubes was omniscient, but it seemed to flatten like a balloon as the day continued. The subject didn’t even warrant a passing reference, from what I gathered, despite the armed police presence.

The ambiance on the tubes and on the platforms were expectedly characterised by anxiety and suspicion. People seemed to have dropped their books and Metro papers for bag-spotting, and I was no different. After deliberately avoiding the lunchtime rush hour, I made it to Oxford Circus by two o’clock.

It was stimulating to instantly experience the same London I had two years ago, the minute I got out of the Tube station. People were still sipping coffee in street cafés, struggling from designer shops with countless bags of clothes and market traders were haggling over toilet rolls.

Then I had a bewildering thought. The bombs and deaths of 7/7 had been set in the context of clichéd, picture-postcard images of Britain. One bomber played cricket, the other worked in a Fish & Chip shop, with an ending set on a double-decker bus.

I didn’t experience any overt anti-Muslim feeling, but perhaps I needed to read between the lines. I noticed an Evening Standard newspaper board which quoted the headline of the day: “LONDON MOSQUE LINK TO ALL EIGHT BOMBERS”.

Later in the day, with the rain pouring down, I struggled to find the South Kensington station among the crowded streets. I caught a glimpse of a t-shirt someone was wearing bearing the London Underground logo, with the words “Not Afraid” printed in the blue. A tsunami of fear washed over me once again.

As I stood on the packed platform, I saw a Muslim man wearing a headscarf, dressed smart. He looked focused yet slightly uncomfortable. I was aware it was five o’clock, the evening rush hour. The mad scuttle threw us together onto the same carriage; I was roughly six feet away from him. My heart missed a beat when I noticed wires running from his ears to his black shoulder-bag, and I began sweating when I saw him reach into his inside jacket pocket, midway through my journey.

The next sound was not boom, nor screams. Nor was it followed by a chorus of whining sirens and car alarms. The man probably just had an iPod, and I felt a little foolish but relieved.

My visit to London was not at all one of fear. It’s the city it’s always been; the best capital city in the world, and I’ll be going back again this year.

The religious supermarket: young Christians

In The Woods - 16 July 2005

Does this routine strike you as rather odd? Wake up, go to Church, come home for Sunday lunch, polish the crucifix on the mantelpiece. Squeeze into your short skirt, doll your makeup, go out, get plastered and wake up at two in the afternoon, not remembering who you might have got with. To me, it sounds like the daily schedule of a schizophrenic, dabbling in two separate lives that are extremely at odds.

As a devout atheist (oh, the irony) with an interest in history, Christianity seems something to abhor. Just look at the crusades, the Vatican’s support for the Nazis, via the Inquisition, and you’ve just experienced a ghost ride on the horrors and countless deaths on behalf of the Christian faith over the centuries. Any sort of unfairness, be it poverty, apartheid or the slave trade, was justified by “In the Name of God” or “The Ends Justify the Means”. A very vulnerable and pious society allowed this sort of injustice to occur. Even now, President Bush tries to rally his country behind the war in Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ by using these mantras, and by stressing that we are fighting an “evil” force.

I remained agnostic until the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, when I realised one of three things about God had to be true. God created the disaster himself, God knew the disaster was imminent but was powerless to stop it (thus not omnipotent), or God was unaware of the imminent Tsunami and was powerless to prevent it (not omnipotent nor omniscient).

But it is surprising quite how many people still believe in an omniscient presence. They don’t call themselves Christians, or Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jews, or Hindus or Buddhists, but they do believe that something is out there. By not belonging to any organised establishment, they are exempt from the rules of religion and can live like ordinary people without feeling the urge to confess.

I went to a party last year, where a lot of the ‘Crusader Club’ types were downing WKDs and dancing around like it was the birth of Christ. I seem to recall in my drunken stupor, asking one of them, “Won’t you burn in hell?” I was joking, but she replied, “I don’t care! The only good thing about the bible is God.” I remember dancing with her afterwards and nothing more was said, but in the morning I got to thinking, why do people go to Church and claim they are Christians if they are so willing to break the rules?

An over-simplified explanation would argue that these people have either been brainwashed by their parents and are merely growing up, or simply go to Church to appease their parents. But these people are intelligent. They know they are free to not believe, or free to believe without belonging.

Edward Rickard, the author of the material taught at his ministry, explains how “the fateful decision was made not to classify TV as another form of cinema or theatre, both of which were already condemned by the rules. The rules became very inconsistent. The whole system of rules lost credibility.”

So, Christians were not allowed to drink or smoke, but they could stare at endless commercials for beer, wine, and cigarettes. They were not permitted to dance, but they could look at the dancing featured in variety shows. They were prohibited from playing cards, but they could see game shows in which contestants gambled. They were forbidden to watch a Hollywood movie shown at a theatre, but they could watch the same movie telecast into their homes.

Churches today would not emphasise “the rules” as much as they would advocate positive rules, such as “love thy neighbour” (and the ones they want to be characterised by). Of course, the task facing Christianity today is discovering new sins that the modern world has created. The difficulty lies in the fact that any illegitimate pastimes or pleasures may not have existed in Biblical times.

One of my ex-girlfriends prefers to think of Christianity as “her faith” rather than a “religion” because the latter connotates rules. I remember saying she was in denial. The squabble stopped there, as did the relationship.

But the thrust of my argument still remains; if you believe in God, why go to Church and risk condemnation? It is perfectly reasonable to believe without belonging, if the sort of lifestyle you desire is opposed to the Church norm. Perhaps they’ll work it out at Crusaders.

Two cities, or that's what it feels like

Article World - 8 July 2005

I was taking a break in the Lake District recently, when I heard the news of London’s successful 2012 Olympic bid. I returned the following day to the contrasting news of terror in London, blitzed by four bombs, striking four parts of our capital city.

Contrast is an understatement. The crowd that gathered at Trafalgar Square, awaiting the decision from Singapore, was redolent of the VE parades in 1945, and the potent people power of the occasion was also similar to that of sixty years ago. A cruel twist of fate now places the Square in the same mood as the Atocha railway station in Madrid and Ground Zero in New York.

Developing these two examples, it is interesting to note that, unlike after 9/11, there has (so far) been no reactionary surge in visceral nationalism, nor has there been (again, so far) a backlash against our political leaders, as seen in Spain after March 11. Instead, London’s response to the attacks on Thursday denies any political motive, instead treating it as a natural disaster. People are subdued, but have not been provoked to anger, nor over-defensiveness.

You may be able to draw evidence from other articles for my cynicism and, some might say, ignorance of terrorism; something I believed was a pretext for the curtailment of civil liberties. Freedoms of speech and the right to trial have been some of the fundamental liberties I have mentioned in the context of terrorism in this country.

I have always remained utterly opposed to the Prevention of Terrorism Act in its entirety, and I recognise in light of recent events that freedom does indeed come at a price. We must fight to uphold our liberties that more than 52 people have died to protect, and continue to live without fear in our daily lives. We as a nation have lived through centuries of war, the blitz in the 1940s, the constant IRA threat during recent decades and this new menace is no different.

Clive Stafford-Smith is deeply committed to gaining and improving civil rights in America, though he was born and educated in England. He is also a defence lawyer. He too denies that the environment post-9/11 has been artificially engineered as a climate a fear, or “an aura of endless threat”. He asked me in a recent lecture, quite off-the-cuff, “do you believe that the country we live in today is more dangerous than it was ten or twenty years ago?” I replied with a typical “no”. He then progressed to describe the kind of environment he believes can be achieved in the next ten years: “Gitmo will be closed (and that is not a dream). But the other US lawless enclaves will be gone. Torture will be back in the history books where it belongs instead of the current agenda, and the West will pull in its 9/11 horns in recognition that we have been forcefully destroying everything we stand for.”

It is a terrible shame that this catastrophe has occurred when the city, and the nation, were celebrating. Let us not forget, but continue marvelling in the victory, whilst keeping an eagle eye over the status of our civil rights. It may be hard, but we've been here before, and we'll be here again.

A review of 'Withnail and I'

Glasgow University Magazine - 11 April 2006

'Withnail and I’ was one of those films that everyone but me had seen. Just as with ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, my friends mimicked the film’s slapstick moments to death – so I feared that the over-hype would naturally result in a huge disappointment for me when I finally got around to watching it.

The tale follows the miserable lives of two anarchic, shabbily dressed, ex-public school out-of-work actors at the wrong end of their twenties; Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant) and I (Paul McGann), who’ve somehow found themselves in the dank slums of London in 1969. The opening few scenes lend themselves to describing the mundane lives of the pair – a living hangover of booze, pills, insomnia and paranoia – portraying Withnail as the eccentric alcoholic, and ‘I’ as his fed-up, going-insane lodger with a twinkle of ambition in his eye. The early scenes are an odd cocktail of semi-slapstick comedy with melancholic undertones.

After an aggressive encounter with an Irishman in a pub, ‘I’ suggests an inspiring trip to the North, to a Penrith cottage belonging to Withnail’s gay uncle. The pair head off with suppressed enthusiasm to the rattle of the dodgy exhaust and Withnail swigging whiskey and howling at pedestrians. Their enthusiasm fades, however, as the “holiday by mistake” comically descends into a farce as rain, lack of food, inhospitable locals and the bitter cold generate yet more desperation and misery. The pair resume their continual fight for food and warmth by killing a live chicken and badgering a local farmer for wood and coal.

Uncle Monty returns to the cottage in typical flamboyant style, with ‘I’ having to fend off his attentions – but he gives them food and money, which they squander on booze to escape from the relentless penury and discomfort they were trying to flee in the first place. When they return to their flat in London to sign on for another week, Danny (their friend and drug dealer) is talking philosophically about the hippy dream gone sour, the end of the sixties, whilst smoking the infamous ‘Camberwell Carrot’ – a half-foot, inch-thick spliff. “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths,” he says poignantly. Shortly afterwards, ‘I’ finds work in a play, and as a working thespian, he moves out to earn a living. An emotional farewell leaves Withnail toasting his departure - but now living alone in squalor.

So as the end credits rolled, I gazed down at the borrowed DVD case – and realised what a well-rounded film this actually was.

A review of 'Headache Hotel' by Karen Cheung

Aesthetica - 1 February 2006

Ever wonder why you have a certain song in your head? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mind-sang my way through entire albums during work shifts – but the wondering is over. Karen Cheung has the answer: a small black-and-white bird crawls through your earlobe, checks into a cheap hotel in your brain, bashes away at its piano and you hum away.

But this amusing 2-minute animation is also artistically pleasing, as well as psychologically pondering. The sheets of music that seep from the piano aptly fade into the rooms of Mind Hotel – and we can see the protesting heckles of the other ‘guests’ – a barking dog, a banana-drumming monkey and two chirping birds – who are simply adding backing sounds to the tune played by the bird.

Unfortunately, the bird is booted out of the hotel and thus from the ear of its human host. “I’ve just ‘ad this awful tune in my ‘ead,” the man says.

A review of 'Family Portrait' by Rob Brown

Aesthetica - 1 February 2006

Behind every instance of domestic violence, psychological torment and neglect in families sits a patchwork of happy memories – but also a myriad of sad ones. In this snippet of gripping drama, Brown serves up a monstrous plate of murder, with the very vivid cocktail of fear and revenge that washes it down.

Throughout the short, we are shown photographs and home videos of an average nuclear family – the usual medley of weddings, birthdays and Christmases, to a backing track of the mother and wife, Denise, screeching for help to an emergency service operator as her husband breaks into their home after shooting their son. Brown cleverly juxtaposes the happy memories with the reality, so much so, that if you close your eyes, you weep in fear for Denise – when if you mute the sound, you smile in awe of their scrapbook of family love.

Chu Ma Shu - a profile.

Chu Ma Shu on MySpace - 7 December 2006

Chu Ma Shu are everything and nothing you’ve ever heard. Formed in Pickering, North Yorkshire in 2002, the band’s recreational habits form a pillar of the culture we know as ‘rock n roll’, whilst they are both innovative and creative with their ever-evolving musical output. Marrying influences from bands like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Del Amitri, the band has won Battle of the Bands contests in both Helmsley and York. They recorded an E.P. in 2004 with 6K Vision, which was mixed at the infamous Abbey Road Studios in London. The band has also played at a cluster of diverse live venues since its birth – from the smoky pubs around the area, through the swanky music bars of York and Scarborough, to open-air events at Pickering Castle.
But Chu Ma Shu have changed three members in as many years. Twins Dan and Mike Harding (who co-founded the band back in ’02) left the band in 2005 to pursue their interests in A Dog Named Hero, whereas Rob Lumby seemed to follow the fate of the Manics’ Richie Edwards and promptly vanished into the leafy York suburbs. In one fell swoop, the band was robbed of its drummer, bassist and rhythm guitarist. But as the months wore on, Chu managed navigate their way back into the limelight with new bassist (Jake’s brother) Max D’Alquen and new drummer Andy Wardell.

Now, after an era of music drowned in side-partings and black-rimmed glasses is drawing to an end, Chu’s roots in the classic rock camp are making themselves heard again.

A review of 'Just Passing Through' by Ruth Nicklin

Aesthetica - 24 November 2005

You could expect this documentary to be the music video for The Kinks’ infamous ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – a city where 7 million strangers hurry past one another every day. As the camera darts up and around the station, we see a huge mass of concrete and tyres, and one countryman comments: “One feels like a matchstick man”.

Nicklin plays us candid footage of the systematic arrival of trains and the patter of commuting feet alongside a backing track of her interviewees’ lives. A woman picking her son up from his girlfriend’s, a newspaper salesman and a platform worker comprise the mundane routines of the Londoners we see snippets of. Nicklin cleverly films her subjects going about their day-to-day businesses as the fast-paced station operates in black and white behind them. She makes her characters seem bigger in this way, shedding their anonymous skin for just a moment.

As the haunting tannoy booms: “Calling at…” a frenzy of trains and people come and go in fast-forward, until daylight fades.

Two lovers lay across one another on the station floor. The male describes how “On Valentine’s day, I was waiting under the clock with a red rose … we fell in love.” A contrast with the earlier countryman – two people managed to find love in the station, where he just feels lonely.

London’s large homeless community is also represented – tramps who sleep underneath the station are content with the surrounding cafés and tea stalls – one man explains how “If we ain’t got money, he let us off – ‘cos he knows if he gets mugged, we all jump in.”

It puzzles me to think how a short documentary about a train station has gripped me. A social document which echoes of Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ – and as the light darkens over Waterloo, I feel enlightened that someone has put faces to the faceless strangers of London.

A review of 'What Barry Says' by Simon Robson

Aesthetica (submitted but unpublished) - 24 November 2005

We are led on a lightspeed journey cross a sea of stars and stripes, when Barry asserts: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth.” At this point, we can expect Barry to go one of two ways – either he will describe the U.S. as an economical phenomenon, led by humanitarian free marketeers, or will portray it as a nation led by neo-conservative, belligerent demagogues. Barry chooses the latter.

Barry begins his rant on U.S. foreign policy by describing the recent ‘War on Terror’ as “a campaign against opposition to U.S. domination”. We can only hear his voice, which is spoken with a calm sophistication. Visually, key words in Barry’s argument such as ‘Exploit’ glisten in black and blood red. We are subjected to a speedy slideshow of globes, tanks, bombs and caricatures of Cheney, Rumsfeld and, you guessed it – Dubya himself.

Barry’s argument is clear – the U.S. has developed an “insatiable appetite for conflict” as it is simply feeding its own financial interests around the world.

Barry argues that the U.S. aims to turn the world into “its very own enslaved global market”. He controversially asserts that “the attacks on the world trade centres by Al Queda were just one response to it.” Barry uses the idea that the Iraq war was a business trip to develop his concept of ‘War Corporatism’ and explains how “September 11th was merely a pretext.” Barry then turns his attentions to the U.S. Administration, Inc. He describes politicians Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as a “sinister group” and explains how George W Bush is “merely the figurehead” of this monstrous war machine.

‘What Barry Says’ reeks sourly of Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ although it is considerably shorter (under 3 mins). It’s Globalisation For Beginners, a bite-sized flick of world affairs that could politicise a sheep.

A review of 'Live 8'

Article World - 3 July 2005

I awaited Live8 with intrigue. Watching back its predecessor, Live Aid 1985, I was gripped and engulfed by the overwhelming sense of unity felt by the hundreds of thousands in the crowds at Wembley and across the Atlantic, in Philadelphia. These people were not just rock fans. They were harmonised behind the mission to end poverty in Africa, propagated by a charismatic but youthful Bob Geldof and fellow samaritan Bill Graham.

However, many people do not recognise the leading roles Bono and director Richard Curtis took during Geldof’s refusal to “take on something [he] did twenty years ago”, which acted as a blockade up until late May of this year. They were compelled by the tremendous significance that tied the imminent G8 meeting to Live Aid’s 20th anniversary; it was the African issue in particular they wanted to throw up onto the very highest political platform. Then came Make Poverty History and Geldof emerged from the shadows under the more simplistic rhetoric of ‘Drop the Debt’, ‘Make Trade Fairer’ and ‘More and Better Aid’. But as Geldof had learned from ’85, his campaign would only work given complete government support. Any revival would also need a slightly different theme. The impending G8 meeting on British turf allowed the campaign to reach out to the people of the eight richest nations – Live8 was born.

I expected the bill to be disappointing. I thought Geldof would need to field artists such as Craig David and Damien Rice to capture any kind of public excitement, and it seemed that the concert would appear clichéd and perfunctionary, let alone live up to the powerful frenzy that was Live Aid. Of course, the pioneering Bono would play with U2, Paul McCartney would play ‘Let It Be’ to the singalong of maybe a dozen others, leaving a disillusioned crowd hungry for the Scissor Sisters. How wrong I was. Sting, Elton John, REM, U2, Paul McCartney, personal favourites The Who, Brian Wilson, A-ha, The Cure, Madonna, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Bryan Adams, Annie Lennox and the Pet Shop Boys were all stars of the past confirmed in lineups spanning half the planet. There were even some inspiring artists of the day playing: Coldplay, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, Joss Stone, Travis, Muse, Linkin Park, Kayne West, Dido and Jet in as many vast locations. Geldof had even managed to perform a miracle: reforming Pink Floyd for a Hyde Park headlining set. July 2nd seemed too good to be true.

10 concerts, 260 bands playing, and I was one of five billion viewers witnessing a revival of this musical phenomenon. The aforementioned Bono and Paul McCartney performed a fantastic ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ before U2 broke in with the incredibly appropriate ‘Beautiful Day’ avec doves and apt lyric-changing. Coldplay provided the 90s era with a 21st century ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ which included very nostalgic appearance from the sensational Richard Ashcroft. But their entire set was nostaligic; references to Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ and Freddie Mercury’s infamous ad-lib brought an otherwise inert crowd to the palimpsest of Wembley Stadium.

The London concert then plunged into the out-of-depth mediocrity of Keane and Dido and the perfunctionary Geldof rallies, only picking up when crowd king Robbie Williams stood before the 200,000-something crowd. The Who performed ‘Who Are You’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ without any symptom of their 43-year existence and Pete Townshend provided the crowd with some of the best guitar-playing of the day. It stuck me as odd to finish with Pink Floyd, but the sound of Roger Waters’ bass guitar seemed to pull a sheet of discontentment yet tranquility over the crowd, contrary to the riots in Edinburgh.

Visually, Live8 was also entertaining. During The Who’s set, slides of the eight world leaders meeting in Gleneagles were cast upon the huge telescreens and the back of the stage, the theme of Richard Curtis’ film ‘The Girl in the Café’. Admirably, the organisers and artists did not once take their focus off the subject of awareness, relentlessly advocating online and SMS petitions rather than their cheques. As Bono put it during his set, the show was “not about charity, but about justice.” Truly remarkable.

A review of 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

6th Magazine - 1 December 2004

Hate him or hate him, George W. Bush has overcome the barrage of criticism in his first term to win a second term in office as President of the United States. This film failed in turning the tide for Democratic hopeful John Kerry in the Presidential election last month, but provides us with everything we feel liberated to know.

This film opens by looking at the circumstances preceding Bush’s victory over Democratic opponent Al Gore to win the 2000 Presidency, allegedly by 537 votes in the state of Florida. The first thirty minutes illustrate the scandalous tactics Bush employed to skew the result in his favour, such as knocking up to half a million African Americans off the roles, as traditionally, they weren’t likely to vote for him.

‘Fahrenheit’ then looks upon the time surrounding September 11, focusing upon Bush’s ‘time out’ at a Texas ranch; playing golf, fishing and watching his dog “chase Armadillos” whilst cutting counter-terrorism funds from the FBI and ignoring urgent reports on Bin Laden as a terrorist threat. Moore then explores Bush’s time as an ambitious oil businessman, building up relationships with Saudi tycoons and in particular the Bin Laden family, which presents a link into the next topic of the film, the Iraq war.

‘Fahrenheit’ accounts for the contradictory testimonies given by the Bush administration on the ‘terrorist threat’ and Bush’s persistence and eventual success in injecting his country with the ‘War on Terror’ – a psychological engineering of opinion in order to gear support.
A mood of sombreness underlies the final forty minutes or so, with front line soldiers and their families telling the stories they have lived.

This film tells chronological story of Bush’s first term as President; from the corridors of power in Congress and the White House, to the streets of America and to the front line in Iraq. A tale of corporate corruption, senseless death, unnecessary warfare and political favouritism. Let the facts speak for themselves.

I'm a toddler when it comes to blind interviews...

Website - 17 January 2006

I recently joined the web phenomenon of MySpace.com - which trumpets itself as "a place for friends". It's also renowned for its famous users, and I was stunned to find the keyboardist/organist from my favourite band The Doors, Ray Manzarek walking the chatroom corridors. I was a tad apprehensive at first, as any interviewer would be - was this just a spotty teenager with an obsessive personality posing as Ray? The profile page of 'Ray' was very detailed - even down to some pictures of his family. There were a few doubts though; 'Ray' kept sending out bulletins with the usual crap that chokes people's inboxes - 'send this to 15 people or your wish won't come true' poems and friendly questionnaires. But, I decided to press ahead anyway, motivated by the prospect of being printed by my editor at Aesthetica and (perhaps) Q or NME Magazines. I mailed 'Ray' a few questions of my own, and he responded within a couple of days. I giddily posted our interview on the site and set about getting it published. I asked 'Ray' for his press agent and he told me it was .....@yahoo.com. Here's what the Managing Coordinator at Aesthetica wrote to me.

"Hi Steve
Cherie [my editor] asked me to have a look at this interview and authenticate it. I am a linguist and an English Language teacher and looking at the interview from a sociolinguistic perspective, I have a few concerns.

The first thing that struck me was the personal email address for his press agent. I managed to track down Ray's press agent. It is a company called Empty Mirror Books Agency in New York. It's a big company with their own web-domain, meaning that they wouldn't need to use Yahoo.
The next thing was the length and depth of his answers. Ray went to university and is quite the philosopher. If you have a look at published interviews with Ray on the Internet, he spends a lot of his time discussing politics, social inclusion and personal happiness. Unfortunately, these answers show minimal depth and understanding of such matters. Also, the reason people agree to interviews is to promote their latest projects. I would expect more references to Riders on the Storm playing in Europe.

Ray is a writer and has written a few books. The writing style in the answers are mainly composed of simple sentence structures and run-on sentences. You see this style of writing in people who are operating around a low level 2 to high level 1 education standard. This is equivalent to GCSE English grade C to D.

There are also some grammatical inaccuracies and American English spelling mistakes. The grammatical inaccuracies present are common in colloquial British English, and it is written using the British English spelling system.

Also, the term 'Negro Music' is a right-wing, uneducated to mid-educated reference. Ray is left-wing and educated. I do not believe he would use this reference.

Sociolinguistics works by categorising stereotypes and that is it's downfall, because there are always exceptions to the rule. However, there seems to be too many loose ends in this short passage. If I were to categorise the person who wrote it, I would say that they are white, aged between 16 to 29, highest education level is GCSE and is from, and currently lives in Britain.
I'm sorry Steve, but I think this person is trying a bamboozle. Don't worry, we get them sometimes. Last year somebody managed to convince us that they were a great artist when in fact they submitted a rare Manet. We didn't realise until after we published it. I also use to teach art history and I was surprised that I didn't know that piece. A year before that, somebody submitted a great poem for consideration. It had a peculiar sentence structure that seemed familiar to us. It turned out to be a rare American poem written by an unknown author during the 1800s.

But thanks for all the work you have put into the magazine. Cherie and I really appreciate it and are glad to have somebody on the team with your enthusiasm.

All the best
Dale Donley."

Who knew? Well, I guess this is a valuable learning curve for me. Here's the interview of 'Ray Manzarek' - together with my blind affection for this stooge.

What do you get up to these days?

”I spend a lot of time with my family and they are wonderful supporters of ‘Riders on the Storm’ [Ray’s new band with former Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger] which we are planning a tour with this year… starting in Europe.”

Is there more of a divide now between your musical and domestic life than there was 40 years ago with The Doors?

”You could say that. Back then I had a girlfriend/wife and was a young kid with ambitions today there is a lot to hold me back, a son and grandson but I wouldn't trade it for the world.”

What did you make of Oliver Stone’s 1990 biopic of The Doors?

”Dislike it, disapprove of it, despise Mr. Stone.”

Patricia Kennealy described the movie as a “music video” – she didn’t like Stone’s portrayal of her and Pamela Courson. What do you remember about Pamela’s influence in the band?

”It seems the women are never happy with what you say about them. All I am going to say is that Pam took Jim away, and I believe it was her addiction to heroin that killed him. Jim was never a heroin addict, but she got him into it, and as we all know it killed him.”

Did having such an iconographic lead singer make it difficult to be noticed in the band?

”I hear people say how the organ was one of the most distinct sounds in the band, and it was. I never felt left out of the spotlight, though Jim belonged in it. He was made for it.”

I’ve read that the ‘L.A. Woman’ album was the first time You, Robby and John could focus independently from Jim on the musical side of things. Plus of course you had a different producer (Bruce Botnik). Was this your most accomplished album with The Doors?

”I think they were all ‘the most accomplished’ albums. I never think we ever made a bad one or even close. Although, L.A Woman was a very tough album to do and to promote after Jim died – that is why we came out with D2C and Riders on The Storm, to promote what Jim couldn't.”

A lot is made of your rift with John Densmore nowadays. Is it as bad as the media suggests, or do you actually see eye to eye?

”It's bad. He want his money and he wants it bad. He never understood Jim and although he is dead now he thinks that he can be a "Media Saviour" and appear as the good guy. “

Jim Morrison took LSD largely due to the philosophy of the band and ‘The Doors of Perception’. Why were you guys never as indulgent as him?

”I tried LSD once and it was great, man. But the second time sent me into the depths of hell. It was sickening. I couldn't walk or even move without becoming sick.”

What were your musical influences growing up?

”I liked a lot of what they called ‘Negro Music’ or the blues and loved to listen to the radio.”

Apart from yourself of course, who is your favourite musician of all time?

”Muddy Waters, and a vast amount of Jazz and Blues musicians”

Is it true you made a nude film of your girlfriend during your college days in film class?

”Yes, But she wasn't nude. She had a strapless bikini on and the way she appeared in the arms of her co-star, she looked nude. “

Finally – clichéd, but what would be your advice to a young experimental rock band in 2006?

”Go for it. There are people out there in this world who want to make new things and inspire new people. There are people out there who understand the same things and will find the music – and they will listen.”

I have never...

Website - 13 January 2006
(It's a blog thing)

I have never...

1)Attempted suicide
2)Watched ‘Rainbow’
3)Not been indulgent in music
4)Punched someone
5)Stopped reforming my bedroom
6)Played ‘Operation’
7)Flossed (seriously)
8)Disliked English lessons
9)Thought about the future more than the past
10)Talked on my mobile while being served at a till (Isn’t that the rudest thing imaginable?)

What do young Christians think of some of the most heinous biblical verses?

Website - 7 December 2005

One of the things I’ve noticed about young Christians is their over-reliance and indulgence in the New Testament only – the dreamy story of “love thy neighbour” and “turn the other cheek”. As an anti-theist I have an obsession with testing people’s religious faith and convictions – and so rather pretentiously I gathered together some of the most awful and bigoted verses from the Old Testament (verses that constitute murder, rape and genocide). I put these verses to some confirmed Christians (Catholic, C of E or other) to see what they thought…

Job 15:26 "Anyone who is born whose flesh is not circumcised on the eighth day is... to be smashed down and annihilated, to be uprooted from the face of the earth."

AY: I don’t know what to think. I don’t like it. It’s a bit rash.
SG: That’s a bit extreme.
BS: It’s a verse showing God’s anger when his children disobey him. It’s a good verse.
CB: Circumcision is old fashioned isn’t it? So that doesn’t really apply to modern life.
CH: That’s just. Well, God is just God.

Exodus 21: 5-6 "If a servant says, 'I love my master and my wife and children, I do not wish to be freed,' his master may bring him out to the door-post, bore a hole in his ear with an awl; and the servant shall serve him forever."

AY: Powerful. Gruesome. It shows commitment from a man who’s willing to have his ear pierced or whatever.
SG: I suppose that’s what they believed in so I can’t really pass judgement. Everything that is written in the bible are the basic morals which we live by.
BS: That’s cool too. The ear ring is the symbol of a free slave. He is allowed to be free, but if he stays with his master it means he’s good.
CB: There’s a ‘but’ that comes next, surely…
CH: Er… the same.

Leviticus 21: 14-40 "I shall make you eat the flesh of your own sons, I shall make you eat the flesh of your own daughters... You shall be scattered among your enemies and those that survive will live in such terror as to scream at the falling of a leaf."

AY: Woah. That’s powerful again, and moving. A great description and speaks of the time I suppose.
SG: That one’s strange…
BS: Again, a power verse showing God’s wrath for disobedience.
CB: Well, that has to be talking about wrong-doers.
CH: Harsh, but just.

Samuel 1:11 "I shall make your wives have sexual intercourse in broad daylight with all your neighbours."

AY: That’s context bound. Typical of Samuel.
SG: That’s just perverted!
BS: Again, God’s anger. An extremely fair reaction for a God-slinging world.
CB: Woah. My God’s pretty mean…
CH: Again, harsh but just.

Samuel 15:18 "Go and utterly destroy those sinning Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed."

AY: It shows us that God hates sin and we pay with sin with our death. Typical of the Old Testament.
SG: Just like modern day – someone does something, goes to war and tries to utterly destroy each other.
BS: Many great Godly men led armies against them, as God told them not to. It’s good.
CB: Those are fighting words.
CH: Just. They’re enemies of God’s people.

Genesis 6:6 "He regretted having made human beings and was grieved at heart”

AY: No response.
SG: I understand that one – human beings are so damn complicated so I see where he’s coming from.
BS: This is really sad, but quite beautiful. It shows that he is just as emotional as a human being.
CB: That’s because we sinned.
CH: Perfectly reasonable, we mucked up.

Say you want a revolution?

Website - 2 November 2005

Is it unreasonable to organise a revolution at your workplace? I don't think it is. The system at Co op is (still) based on age and patronage, and it's the kind of hierarchy that Marxists love to get their teeth into. There's a wall between the managers and the staff, and many more walls in between older and younger staff. But this week, someone discovered that our manager earns "about three grand" a MONTH. That's 36,000 a year! It doesn't bother me too much - largely because I'm not chained to Co op as a way of life. I used to say that some of the stunts I pulled at work made boring jobs bearable. They don't. Revolutions do. Anyway, wasn't Co op founded on socialist principles? It's extraordinary how much my political views have changed over the past year or so - I used to be on the wrong side of war debates, but now I know it's going to be me proudly holding a huge Che Guevara flag over the riots at Leeds next year. But you won't fool... A couple of weeks ago I tried out a photography project. I went about Pickering taking snaps of all the 'Private' and 'No Entry' signs I could find - I also took a few nice pastoral pictures. They're just stored on this laptop at the moment, not quite sure what to do with them... perhaps I'll use them to highlight the continuing land ownership problem or something. I love my digital camera. Elsewhere.. Andy (one of my good friends) is getting married in less than a fortnight! He's been my friend since primary school, so it feels a little strange - I'm an usher though and I'm looking forward to it. I got an offer from Glasgow University! It's my second choice, after Edinburgh - but it's still good. On a more perculiar note, I've taken to writing down my dreams. I've been glued to a book called 'Black Coffee Blues' by Henry Rollins (fiver from HMV) - it's mainly his take on the world around him. He used to be in a band called Black Flag, which toured the world in the late 80s/early 90s. Rollins has included some travel stories and comments, an interesting section called 124 Worlds (124 scenarios he's created), some philosophy and some of his dreams. Here's one of my dreams. I'm watching television with my family. Sophia Loren is being interviewed and a burning candle is all that makes them visible. The interviewer cracks a joke. Sophia laughs so hard and she leans forward. The flame from the candle sets her hair alight. She's still laughing. The flames spread down her cheeks and her skin melts and falls off. After a few moments, only her skull remains - smoke pours out from her eye sockets. She's still laughing. I need a smoke...

A religious debate... via email

30 October 2005

____________________From Ben, 28th October 2005 at 22.12

Hey Steve, I shall just continue from when you left.......
You: "but every church claims to be pure?"
Yes every church does. But all these churches are based around christianity, so ultimatly the bible. And if you fundementally take the bible, and form a chrurch on those foundations, your end result will be a pure christian chruch, (for example, my church). The corruption and false beliefs kick in when the message of the bible is changed (for example Jevohiah Witnesses), rules are ignored (Catholics), new ones are created (mormons), or even possibly some things are over emphasised (Pentacostal). All of these branches of 'christianity' have their own reasons or excuses for their different direction, yet all follow the same 'rule book' (the bible). So the final analysis is that is you play by the rules, you will get the righteous result, and if not, you wont, and that will lead to corruption. This history of 'christianity' is that of these branches that have lost sight of the truth of the bible, and so should not be associated with the true christian church.
In answer to your general focus in your article, Christians believe that their is 2 ways for everyone, whether one believes it, or not; heaven & hell. So the fact of not belonging if you believe makes no sense. Belief is THE thing that makes christianity what it is, it is the belief that saves you from Hell! So on that thought you wouldnt believe and not belong to a church, because you would acknowledge that you were being saved through your faith, and would take God seriously in his request for aligence to the true church. Basically what your saying doesnt make sense, as you donnot fully understand the faith.
Argh i have to go now, but i really want to write more! We shall speak soon!
Take it easy.
____________________From Steve Clarkson, 29th October 2005 at 00.10

Hey Ben
I'll take your points one at a time..
I'm guessing you must be C of E, as you've judged many other branches of Christianity (Catholics, Mormons etc etc) but let me ask you about your statement of Jehovah's Witnesses: in their faith, is "the message of the bible changed?" I have a relative who is a Jehovah's Witness, and he claims that there is a verse that, in other words, means 'you shouldn't build statues of God' - so they don't have life sized models of the virgin Mary, nor do they hang the cross of Christ in their Kingdom Halls. So how are they changing the meaning?

Also, you claim that the rules are "ignored" by Catholics - but why are they seen as the more extreme of the main two branches of Christianity? Also, it's worth bearing that the global number of Catholics outnumber Protestants by more than 2:1 - so yours is a minority view.
I think this raises bigger questions. If you think that religious belief is crucial and each church must have a consensus, then where do you stand on abortion? gays? even blacks? the Bible takes a very right-wing stance on all these issues - and I've actually read these, most of them are in the Old Testament. The Bible is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-black - and it told in the Catholic support for the Nazis in WW2. Remember, the Catholics are a majority in the Christian religion.

If you are anti-abortion, anti-gay etc then fair enough - that's what puts people off religion. But if you are not, then why is your church (as you say, "built upon the foundations" of the Bible) any more true than the other Christian churches?

In your last paragraph you said, "Christians believe that their is 2 ways for everyone, whether one believes it, or not; heaven & hell. So the fact of not belonging if you believe makes no sense." - I actually wrote in my article: "But it is surprising quite how many people still believe in an omniscient presence. They don’t call themselves Christians, or Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jews, or Hindus or Buddhists, but they do believe that something is out there. By not belonging to any organised establishment, they are exempt from the rules of religion and can live like ordinary people without feeling the urge to confess." - meaning, a lot of people who don't go to church still believe in A God, or someone pulling our strings, but don't see why he would make rules for us to live.

I know this is a sensitive topic, particularly for believers in the cold, secular environment we live in today. But reply if you want to say more..

____________________From Ben, 29th October 2005 at 11.03

Hey Steve,
Apologies for my spelling and grammar etc, its not a strength of mine, but I really want to share some stuff.

Firstly I am not C of E, I am a regular 'born again' Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ and all of his teachings.

Regarding Jehovah witnesses: Your relatives would be correct, in accordance to their translation (new world trans). But my debate is not with their actions through the bible, but their bible itself. The original bible has remained in existence for thousands of years and has remained unchanged in content. Literally thousands of Hebrew scholars work constantly to translate the bible into many languages and styles of read, yet the foundations of its truth remain. This was the case until a man by the name Charles Taze Russell took it upon himself to re-write the bible, and to create his own religion: JWs. Russell argued the Hebrew scholars had mistranslated the bible, and he could reveal the true meaning. Basically Russell hated the idea of Hell, so he created his own religion, by twisting the bible to suit him. In the late 19th century, over 500 impartial Hebrew scholars retranslated the bible from scratch in Hebrew. Not a single one found a flaw with the original previous translation, and were shocked at the extent Russell had changed the scripture anyway, never mind the fact he wasn’t even a qualified Hebrew scholar. That is the way in which they have changed the bible. JWs claim to be Christian’s, which basically means 'believers in Jesus', which they do, but not to any significance. The whole point of JW is to 'witness' for God, and to work your way in 'heaven'. But my faith is based around Christ himself, by his death I have been saved from hell. In my bible it doesn’t say anything about statues of God, it comments of statues of 'Gods', but not of the Lord himself. This obviously sparks the (Christian vs. JW) 'Jesus- a son, or God too?' debate, which I can follow up on, if you wish. I also think statues if Mary, and saint etc is wrong, because they are not worthy of such praise. But Jesus is my Lord and savior, and deserved all the praise possible, so it is a privilege to be able to wear a cross around my neck, to outwardly symbolize my salvation through him. Besides the fact of the translation of the bible, JWs are very much focused on 'the watchtower', the organization that basically 'runs' the religion. These people decide on all the literature that all the JWs read, and tell them what to do, as they claim to be ordained. But isn’t making these ordinary people into these holy leaders just as bad, or even worse than making statues of God?
Regarding Catholics, firstly I would like to comment on your last sentence. "So yours is a minority view" is what you said, and yes it is. It is a majority in the world that is against Christianity, but look back in history at 'the majority', as the majority is not always correct. The majority thought the world was flat, and the majority believed in the geocentric cosmic theory, but both are obviously wrong. My point here is that when regarding religion you cannot rely on the majority. For example imagine there is one truth, and only one true religion that is right, and is the best for the human race. From that, Islam would take that place, due to them being the majority. But do you honestly see them as being the right religion, when it is seen as acceptable to fly planes into buildings? The Muslim faith is all based around taking things by force, and by using human power to do so. They are the majority, so therefore, by your analysis that would be the true religion. But do you honestly see their methods as being right? And as acts for their god?

Back to the main point in the Catholic section. Catholics like many religions follow the bible, but yet still ignore common rules of what it teaches. They give much undue attention and praise to Mary, when she is little to do with the actual spiritual side of the faith. They are very into large statues, decoration, and ordained members of the church, telling ‘lesser’ people what to do. The bible clearly teaches about such things, and gives warning about what it can do to you, but the followers seem to put more faith in its ‘ordained’ members than that of the actual bible itself. That is the way in which the rules have been ignored to some extent.

Next, “The Bible is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-black”. Firstly and most importantly the bible is most certainly not ‘anti-black’ in the slightest. If you can find any reference that implies this, I should be glad to hear it. In no way is the Christian faith, or the bible racist at all, that is an absurd accusation. And if it was, do you seriously think that bible teaching ‘all black’ Pentecostal churches would exist? But in answer to the rest of the sentence, yes, I am anti-gay and I am anti-abortion, as this is written about in the bible. But when saying statements like these you must remember that when being ‘anti’ isn’t an attack on the people, but on the issue itself. For example I personally believe a minority of people are genetically gay, but I think the larger part of the gay community are psychological issues, by which they may think they are, or tell themselves they are gay. To me, this is wrong, as God commands against it. Regarding abortion, to me, it is murder, nothing more nothing less; I don’t think I need to say much about that.
"But it is surprising quite how many people still believe in an omniscient presence. They don’t call themselves Christians, or Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jews, or Hindus or Buddhists, but they do believe that something is out there. By not belonging to any organised establishment, they are exempt from the rules of religion and can live like ordinary people without feeling the urge to confess."

Basically I think you greatly miss the point in all this, and if you could clarify a bit more, it would be grand. It doesn’t matter if you believe in “a omniscient presence” or if you don’t label yourself associated with a religion. You seem to view the rules do not apply to those who do not believe, but the fact is that rules apply to everyone, not just the followers of Christ. Those who do not believe or who think there is a different god, break the rules constantly. God doesn’t just give rules to Christians, or not include other religions in his judgment. The fact is, if these people don’t confess and choose not to follow Jesus Christ, they will go to hell, disregarding their personal beliefs on God or other religions.

Any other questions or requests fro further expansion on these topics would be welcome.
Thanks Steve.
____________________From Steve Clarkson, 30th October 2005 at 18.29

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are Good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” -- 1 Peter 2: 18-20

The above is one of the Biblical verses that was used by Christians to justify slavery in the 18th century. So it seems as though the Bible is pro-slavery, thus pro the slave trade of recent times (the slavery of blacks) – and is thus, however indirectly, racist and anti-black. You ask “do you seriously think that bible teaching ‘all black’ Pentecostal churches would exist?” – yes I do. It can only be a good thing that churches are now inclusive, which is why we now have gay Bishops (despite their obvious discrimination in the Bible, which you recognised).

Regarding Catholics being the majority denomination in Christianity, you said: “The majority thought the world was flat, and the majority believed in the geocentric cosmic theory, but both are obviously wrong.” I agree. I guess the thrust of your statement implied that Catholics are “wrong” – again I agree; I am an atheist. But then again atheists are a minority in the world, so perhaps I was wrong to say that.

Seeing that Muslims were the largest group in the religious world, you went on to say: “do you honestly see [Islam] as being the right religion, when it is seen as acceptable to fly planes into buildings?” I thought it was a bit ignorant, and ironic, that you seem to use fundamentalists to represent the entire Muslim faith. It’s a horrible stereotype, but I guess it’s partisan loyalty on your part. It also seemed to discredit your argument – you don’t want to be compared with how the Catholic church is run, or Christianity’s history, but you are quick to associate ordinary Muslims and followers of Allah with the atrocities committed by a tiny minority of the same faith. The sexual abuse of youngsters by church leaders seems pretty abundant in your faith, so can I call you a rapist? Again, I don’t see “flying planes into buildings” as being right – I don’t think many people do.

I will try to clarify the paragraph you quoted. You say: “The fact is, the rules apply to everyone, not just followers of Christ” – I understand this, but only the followers of Christ believe this. In the context of my article, I was referring to a girl who was a young Christian like yourself. She said “the only good thing about the Bible is God” – and my point in that article was that the girl was either unaware of, resentful of or didn’t believe in “the rules”. If she didn’t believe in the rules, my point was, she could believe in a God and feel content. She doesn’t have to be a Christian to believe in “an omniscient presence” (a God). What I am really saying is, everyone is content that what they do in their lives will get them to where they think they are going. You are going to heaven. I am going nowhere. Buddhists move up a level to Nirvana. Basically, each person has a right to think they know where they are going. So this girl can believe she is going nowhere, but she still believes in ‘a God’ – like so many others do.
That’s all!
This debate is continuing - if you want to add your own view, either email steve_clarkson_29@hotmail.comor djpip88@hotmail.com (Ben's email)