Sunday, 24 May 2015

Here is an idea

I have recently received an energy bill, and on the side there is a note reminding me that I could get cheaper energy by switching supplier or tariff. I presume that this is a legal requirement, because I cannot see that the company are willing putting it there. I presume it comes from the findings that many suppliers and tariffs are complicated and customers might not be getting the best deal.

Of course, the core reason for this is that the energy companies are there to make money, and so are not going to encourage their customers to pay them less or move to another supplier.

So I have an idea: Nationalise the energy companies. Then those in charge can ensure that everyone gets the cheapest tariff available. There would be no need to encourage people to change companies, because there would only be one. There would be a possibility of tracking usage, and ensuring that all customers are automatically on the one that provides them with the best value for their usage.

Surely this is a much better option?

And we can go further. I am not going to discuss the re-nationalisation of the railways - that is discussed and debated elsewhere. However there is another business that I think should be considered.

Something that has become clear over the last few years, with the economic crisis, is that the financial sector is the most crucial to our economy, especially as we have destroyed our manufacturing sector. The financial sector is "too big to fail".

As this sector is so vital, it is clear that we should nationalise the banks. This would have a number of crucial impact. For a start, there would be no need to bail the banks out, as they would already be government owned. The massive profits that are currently earned by the banks, and handed out in bonuses, would then provide much needed income for the country.

Further to that, the bankers would become civic servants, and should then be paid as civic servants. Rather than millions going in bonuses, the bankers would be appropriately remunerated, and in receipt of appropriate honours for successes. We are given many assurances that the finance sector is important because of the money it brings into the country, these changes would, I am sure, be welcomed by all. They would result in far more money for the country, and enable us to manage and control this sector of the market, ensure that it stays safe and behaves, meaning that none of the risky investment strategies that plunged us into the financial crisis would reoccur.

Of course, the banks are not the only part of the financial sector, however, they are the most significant, and by nationalising these, it should exercise some control over other areas. I am, of course, talking about the merchant banks - the high street operations need to be separated from these, and more regulated, but they would seem to operate OK as competitive shops for our normal money.

Now who could really object to this? It provides significantly increased income for the government, the country. It brings the banking sector under control, and so the multitude of regulations and regulatory bodies could be reduced. The loathing that bankers currently face would be reduced, and it would send a strong message to the rest of the financial sector to ensure they do not take stupid risks.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

The church is the only place we teach by a speech

The title is a tweet I saw recently, and it struck a chord. The church is pretty well the only place where we consider a sermon - a speech - to be a means of communicating information.

Now whenever I raise this, the response comes back that "sermons aren't primarily about teaching, they are exhortation, encouragement etc." I sort of get this, at least in places that do have other means of teaching, of learning. But I still think that the pedagogy of the church is way behind anywhere else. There is nowhere else where the core teaching is done in this way.

I do understand that some universities still work of a lecture approach, but the majority of the teaching is on the back of this, writing essays, attending seminars, using the lecture material as one piece of insight into the topic, acknowledging that the main learning will be through the engagement with this material. And I know that for many, home groups provide the "seminar"-like environment, so for those who hear the sermon and go to a home group, and where the home group is genuinely engaging with the material in a more in-depth way, this might work. However, most home-group leaders are not experts enough to really help people take the material as real learning. What is more, they also have pastoral requirements, so the teaching aspect may get sidelined.

The other place that there are "speeches" given as information is conferences. I am not talking about Christian conferences, some of which naturally follow the church model, I am talking about professional conferences. In most cases, the learning material is partly provided in the talks - and they are always worth going to if the subject is of interest - but this is supported by notes and papers so that the real value of learning from these events can be drawn out and used in the weeks afterwards. It is usually only the "keynote" speech which is an exhortation, introduction or encouragement, which people are less expected to remember as such, but to be encouraged by to take what else they learn and use it.

So is this the purpose of sermons? Without the rest of the detail, the keynote is hot-air. It may be enthusing, especially if the speaker is a well-known personality within the field, but it is unlikely to be the information from this that people take home with them.

I know from my experience that if I am to learn something - a new programming language or methodology for example, something I have had to do a few times in my career - I need to have two things. Firstly, some starting information to get me up and running with the new idea, which is often a course or self-teaching package. Then I need to use it, explore it, work out how it actually works and what I can actually do. It is this latter phase where I can make the real difference.

I know that is schools and colleges, they try to do something similar -introducing ideas and then working with them in a range of ways, so that everyone can engage with them, everyone can find their own way of understanding the concept. We all learn in different ways, so I am not suggesting the my approach is the "right" one: I am trying to say that people don't tend to learn from talks. Most training is done by introduction, exploration with slides, and then experimentation by the student.

I do recall, interestingly, when I first went to university and had my first lectures, that I thought they were a superb way of teaching, because for me, I could learn well from them. What I can now see with hindsight is that this was only the case because a lot of the basic information I already knew. In that situation, it worked really well to formalise it, organise it, and give me a framework that I needed to understand it better. As I progressed, it worked less well.

I am a great believer in sermons. However, I think they need to be something different from the typical talk. This is difficult in the position I was in when I was told what my vicar thought a sermon should be. But a sermon should be a teaching opportunity. In my view, it should be an opportunity to explore where people are, what issues are concerning them. It should be a chance for everyone to work out for themselves, with help, the implications of world events/local events/personal events. I believe that the Christian community should seek these opportunities to find a spiritual insight and perspective on the issues that we face. For me, that is what a sermon should be - a genuine learning experience for everyone, in different ways.

But I really struggle to know what the real purpose of a more traditional sermon is, a talk that is without a pedagogic environment. Most sermons are forgotten about within hours or days - so what is the point? We should scrap them, and replace them with something else that actually does something useful, something valid that people will learn from, grow from.

Unless, dare I say it, there is a conspiracy to not help people learn, because if they learn, they might think, and if they think, they may disagree. If that was the worry, then sermons are the ideal mechanism.

Saturday, 16 May 2015


NOTE: Trigger warning on this post and the links.

A few weeks ago, there was a superb Panorama program on the BBC looking at the prevalence of middle-age, male suicide. On the back of that, I have read the Samaritans men, suicide and society report, which makes for quite difficult reading. That is the reason it has taken me so long to put this posting together, as the report is quite long and hard going.

I would warn people that the program and the report are very difficult to read and watch, and are not recommended for those who might find them upsetting.

The starting point was that the incidence of suicide among middle-age men shown a notable peak. Where most other groups have shown a decline, this group hasn't and is either bucking the general downward trend, or moving upwards. There is a problem with this demographic, and this program and report try to address the reasons behind this. I will attempt to provide some summary of these - although summarising 130 pages of report into one post is not simple! Which is one reason that this is such a long post.

The core reason identified was a problem with men losing their grasp on what it meant to be a man, a crisis in terms of their masculinity. This can come in a range of ways, and it is likely that multiple challenges occur at once. And masculinity is in crisis, not that this is necessarily a bad thing (or necessarily a good thing), but it is does have an impact on people.

One of the significant challenges is when men lose their jobs. In fact, this is probably the major factor in a masculinity crisis. Men still have a sense that in working, they do what they are expected to do, what they are supposed to do. However much we talk about the importance of people irrespective of their employment status, there are still many - of any gender, but especially males - for whom they see their definition in terms of their work. As a society we still define people by their work position and status. While "housewife" or "full-time mother" are perfectly valid and acceptable, "house-husband" and "full-time dad" are not so acceptable. Men who do not have an acceptable work title can feel like they are less than true men, that their masculinity is compromised.

A related aspect is that work in the UK - and the west as a whole - has changed over the last 50 years or so. Many of the more manual, physical typically male jobs has diminished - something that Mrs Thatcher can take some significant blame for. What this means is that, for some, the loss of a physical job can mean that they have to take an office job, or a "soft" job, something that they feel is less manly. Once again, this can lead to a sense of loss of manhood of masculinity. For men in middle age, they are unlikely to achieve a role that has anything that they can feel redeems their sense of self-worth. It is more likely to be a menial job - one that is probably demeaning whoever does it, but for someone trying to find purpose and meaning through their work, this is even worse.

I should point out that this perception is not necessarily true - their friends and family do not necessarily feel that they are "less of a man". That is not relevant in this case, because it is the potential suicides perception of their role, their position, rather that the truth. What the report makes clear is that perception is of primary importance, because it is the perception of an individual about their situation that may drive them to a suicidal act. Suicidal behaviour is driven by feelings and beliefs, not by objective truth.

It is also worth saying that the changes in employment and in the entire job situation has been exacerbated in the last few years, under the Tory government. As unemployment increases, and as unemployment is increasingly stigmatised by the government, this makes the likelihood of middle-aged men taking their own lives higher. Although the precise cause-and-effect is hard to define, and there are plenty of counter-examples, government policies that stigmatise the unemployed while making satisfying work harder to get, will lead to more deaths.

There are also changes to the functions of child-rearing in the family over the last 50 years or so. What was once the preserve of women became something that was expected to be shared between both genders. And yet, when relationships break up, it is often the men who are separated from their children, and this becomes traumatic. Having made the efforts to open up, show emotion, become openly emotionally attached to their children (something that seems obvious, but was not the case a number of years ago), they are suddenly torn away from this. The sense of loss, of failure, can be serious. This is especially true when combined with a perceived failure to fulfil the other fatherly expectation of earning the money to keep them. The inability to be a father in any more than the genetic sense can be very disheartening.

There is another related aspect here, that of the break up of relationships - something that is far more prevalent today than it has been. At a time when men might be very focussed on work, and would have expected to be supported at home, they find that this support is not there. Middle age is when many men find that work challenges are at their highest, often because they are pushing to get their final promotion, the final role in their working life, which is probably the hardest to get. It may be that the children are growing up and they are looking forward - either positively or negatively - to them not being at home any more. It is often a time when they realise that work will not provide everything in their lives, and so they are looking for something more out of life - and so to have what is for many their only non-work contact removed can be devastating.

The other side of this problem is that men deal with problems, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts and anything else in different ways to women (and those currently in middle age deal with things differently to the younger men). This part is rather more personal, because I do recognise most of this myself.

Firstly, we don't talk very well. Talking therapies - which are the mainstay of support and assistance for many people suffering disillusionment about life. Talking does not necessarily mean formal counselling - the report makes it clear that many women will talk about their problems in informal ways as well. Younger people are also better at talking. The particular group looked at do not have this outlet. What is more, men are generally better at hiding their feelings (and at not reading or seeing the real state of other people), meaning that sometimes men will take their own lives while even those closest to them were sure there was nothing wrong. Even when pressed, men are often dismissive of their own feelings and thoughts. Talking, in some form, is often the first step toward acknowledging the problems people are facing, and finding ways around them. Men are notoriously bad at going to doctors for "trivial matters", which is another place that problems can be identified early. So many of the early ways to identify problems are not ones that men take, and so early identification is lost - one suspects that this early identification, however precisely it occurs, saves many lives.

The second issue is that men often self-medicate. This can be with alcohol, work, activity, all sorts of things. By medicating ourselves, by actions that numb the pain, this serves to delay the crisis, rather than make an actual difference. Also, we have a tendency to keep our feelings in, not talk about them, but bury them. The result is that, at some point, this is liable to explode. Some (often minor) issue serves as the trigger, which can lead to a crisis, and can push someone to suicide. This introvert approach to dealing with problems can lead to a crisis causing a suicide attempt. The self medication can also be thrill seeking, risk taking, and this does mean that men often use more serious methods for suicide attempts than women.

Finally, historically, I did wonder whether some of the changes in our society have caused this peak to "appear", rather than "grow". When more of this demographic worked in industrial roles, I wondered whether some of the "industrial accidents" were actually suicides. What has actually changed is that they are now being classified appropriately. This means that the problem is not actually a recent one, but something that has been recently identified against the significant reduction in other suicides.

Conclusions? mainly that this is a problem, and telling this demographic to "talk to someone" is not necessarily helpful. Being prepared to listen is important, and an understanding that just being there for people is sometimes so important. Some of lifes events, that are often blandly dismissed as being "unfortunate", can have, for some people, very significant impact. For many, it is some minor issue that finally breaks them. and the loneliness that is associated with this is tragic.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The UK election result

The election result is in, and the Tories have won an absolute majority. This is abjectly depressing and I want to explain some of the reasons why. I should make it clear that this is NOT because "my party" didn't do well - actually, we didn't do badly, but one positive about supporting a smaller party is that we don't expect to win. I always wish we would get more, but we achieved an increased share and our sitting MP retained her seat (with an increased majority).

My first reaction - and the reaction I have still have is one of anger. I am angry that, as a nation we have returned one of the most oppressive, dismissive, anti-Christian and self-serving parties in my time. I am angry that the desperate cries of the poor, disabled and unemployed have not been heard. I am angry that so many people have, it would seem, are thinking of themselves and not others. I am angry that the politics of money have won over the politics of people - that we have put personal wealth over corporate health.

I am still angry. I will remain angry for a long time, but this is tempered by a deep sadness. I have of late been unemployed (for a short time), which is not because I am lazy, it is because the work I do comes and goes, and it is hard because we are in a recession time - a recession that has been caused by the policies of this government. The time I was looking for work was hard work - it is NOT easy finding a job, even for someone like me who has very marketable skills. For those who do not have my sort of skills, it must be even more difficult. I am deeply saddened that we now have a government who seems to hate the unemployed, and be determined to demonise them and oppress them as much as possible.

I am saddened that we have a government who have shown that they hate and loath the ill - they are determined to destroy the NHS, which is one of the best things about this country. As someone who is ill, and has children who have chronic illnesses, this is frightening. I can only assume that within a few years they will have to be working somewhere with private health insurance, because that will be the only way to get the care that they need.

When Ivan Cameron died, I did feel sorry for the Camerons. To have a child with Cerebral Palsy, and to know the prognosis, must be terrible. To finally lose him, must have been difficult. But that sympathy has evaporated, because David Camerons attitude to the chronically ill is so abusive and dismissive, I can only assume that he is actually glad that Ivan died and was not a burden to everyone, not being able to work or contribute to society*. He would never have been able to earn much money, so would, under the Cameron ideal, be worthless. The fact that he can abuse the poor and the ill so much, after what he has gone through makes me utterly sick at heart.

I am saddened that the poor will continue to be treated with contempt, that the bank balance will be considered the measure of a persons worth. It isn't, and it never will be. What sickens me most is that the idea of "trickle down" or that the super wealthy actually bring more money and wealth to the country as a whole is still being pushed. It doesn't work. Most of the very wealthy take their money and invest it abroad. They keep acquiring more and more of it, taking it from others, and most of them are "sensible" enough to keep it for themselves, investing it in a way that gives them more money, rather than supporting the country. I am saddened that David Cameron is so shallow that he cannot see the value of people more than this.

For now, I am angry. I will return to being angry. And I will cry for those who will not survive to the end of this term, because they will give up and take their own lives. I will cry for those who will suffer needlessly, who will be dismissed, and denigrated, just because they are on the wrong end of the capitalist dream. I hurt for all of those whose life will be worse under this government. In truth, this is all of us, because we are all lesser for this.

*I doubt that they actually feel like this. I accept that this is hyperbole. But why David cannot have sympathy with others, with what he has been through, makes me loathe him even more.

The end of democracy

There are some who will tell me that I cannot complain at the results of an election, because that is democracy. The problem is that this is not democracy. This is a broken and outdated voting system.

As a starting point, the turnout at the election was around 66% - not bad, but it means that just two thirds of the electorate bothered to vote. There must be all sort of reasons why this is the case, some of which may be valid, but a number do not vote because they don't believe it can make a difference. In some cases, this might be true - if the real choice is between two candidates both of whom are obnoxious, there is little real point. When there is no choice between any of the leading candidates, as is becoming more common, there seems little point in actually voting for any of them.

The Tories achieved 37% of the vote, and yet they have over 50% of the seats. Their vote share rose by 0.8%, but they obtained 24 extra seats. Whereas Labour, who had a 1.5%  rise in vote share, lost 26 seats. That doesn't make a lot of sense.

Of course, they are not the only party who are disadvantaged under this system. The Greens obtained 3.8% of the vote - a tenth of what the Tories obtained - and yet only achieved 1 seat. And UKIP managed 12% of the vote, and only 1 seat. Much as I dislike UKIP, this does not seem reasonable. Plaid Cymru obtained 0.6% of the vote, and achieved 3 seats.

There is more. The SNP did remarkably well, but they only obtained 4.7 of the vote - a third that of UKIP - and this got them 56 seats. It was only 20% more than the Greens, but resulted in 56 times as many seats. The LibDems managed 7.9% of the vote share - approaching twice that of the SNP - but only have 8 seats.

The Tories now have an absolute majority, and will, undoubtedly at some point, claim they have a mandate for their policies. But they don't - they have the support of 37% of those who voted. Which, in itself, represents just 24% of the electorate. So they have the support of under a quarter of the electorate, and yet they are in absolute control. That doesn't sound like democracy to me. That sounds like the disenfranchisement of the majority of the electorate.

Of course, if we did have a system of voting that was more representative, people would vote differently. Even if they didn't, I would be complaining because UKIP would have some 77 seats, and the Greens only 24, but it would have been a better representation. It would have meant that my vote was involved and could have had influence in the government.

As it is, I feel profoundly frustrated that, once again, we have a result of a fundamentally and systematically broken system. What is worse, many of the 75% who did not support the Tories will be the ones who will suffer and die under this administration.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The struggle to retain belief

In truth, one of the biggest problems since leaving church has been to maintain my belief in God.

The thing is, if I was still in church, I could happily let my belief wane - even to nothing - and continue the activity of church which might spark the flame again, but it might not actually matter, because I would have the outward show of piety to cover me. I say this simply because I know there are many people in churches who have lost all faith, but stay doing the activity in the hope that nobody will notice.

Without the security of the church activity, my faith seems a whole lot more vulnerable. I am not surrounded by people who believe - I am surrounded by ordinary people, most of whom don't believe. It means that letting my belief wane is so much easier, and yet, in a way, it makes the belief I have so much more important. Suddenly my belief is no longer just something that I believe as part of a group of others, something that is part of my social group. It is something I believe despite my social circles. It is something that is distinctive, and something that I have to maintain despite the opposition (sometimes) of others.

The thing is, something I have to constantly fight for like this seems to me so much more precious. The faith I have - faith in the sense of a whole belief structure - is much more precious because it is not a given. It is something learned, grown, developed and matured. Now obviously, some of the edges do get knocked off. The faith I have now is different from the faith I used to have, but now it is something that I believe and that I work to support.

Of course there is always the possibility that I will find that my faith will wither or die. And there is always the possibility that it will flourish in ways that it could never in the confines of a church. It is risky, difficult and involves work, which is something that a faith-risk-averse church hates.

And that is, to me, the crux of the matter. The church likes un-risky faith, safe professions of belief. While I stayed in the church, my professions of faith had to be safe, risk-free. Outside, my faith, my belief, is permanently full of risk. In either case, there is a lot of work to do - to keep an acceptable faith profession, or to actually maintain my faith, my belief in God.

If I am going to work at my faith, I would rather the latter. A risky faith is far better, far more exciting, because it is what I believe. Risky faith does not mean a faith that makes you take risks. A truly risky faith means a faith that risks itself. So few people are willing to take that sort of risk.