Flower arranging

Plans for one of the island’s most cringe-worthy annual events were revealed yesterday. If we needed any more evidence of the tourist department’s utter incompetence, may I refer the jury to http://www.manx.net/isle-of-man-news/81949/theme-for-2017-isle-of-man-flower-festival-is-announced.

In a nutshell, this event consists of….well, flower displays in churches. Um, that’s it. No, honestly, it is.

The only really interesting feature (at least for number-crunchers who make a living from “re-interpreting” statistics) is the clever way in which a few carloads of grannies wandering around a church magically becomes “thousands” in the official annual tourist figures. It works like this….

The organisers in each church are issued with little clickers, which they press every time a visitor or volunteer walks in the door. The thing is, there are 11 churches, and the event makes no sense unless you visit every one. So, if 100 genuinely interested people visited one church in a week, by the time they’ve seen the lot the total becomes 1100. If you consider that the obligatory party comprising the governor and his entourage alone adds up to about 12 the numbers go down even further. Then there’s town and village politicos, tinies from the local primary school and other compulsory attendees. It all adds up – in a not entirely honest way.

This scam was developed by local heritage bods in a linked government department around the millennium, when an expensive “historic attraction” was losing money hand-over-fist, partly because of constant new repairs demanded by initial bad design, partly by sheer lack of punters. Outside of compulsory school visits and TT Week, the suspicion was that on many days the real footfall for a massive public investment that demanded, for example, the entire re-routing of a town traffic system (killing off all local shops in the process) was in single figures.

To inflate reported attendance, an electronic scanner counted all who passed through the front entrance, and the figures produced became the official attendance quoted in annual reports. This sounds fair until you know that the centre’s own staff pass in and out maybe 20 times a day. Then, because of the constant repairs, there was a constant flow of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, roofers and other tradesmen, passing in and out with each plank, brick, bag of nails, fuse, light-bulb, etc. etc. Amusingly, the attraction won a “Museum of the Year” prize not long after. Some might wonder if a prize for fantasy fiction might have been more in order.

I merely add that the same government body, for about a decade now, has also underwritten an event called Praying the Keills. The tour claims to allow devout Christians to follow the steps of the Celtic saints. In practice quasi-geriatrics and other social misfits are led from one random pile of stones in a windswept spot to another. I am not sure if an ambulance actually follows them around, but I suspect one would have to be on permanent standby.

Seriously, in what parallel universe does a government body go out of its way to promote tourism for retired faith-heads? And in what real world will some very well paid public servants ever get judged on actual good ideas or success?

Not a prayer

One of the island’s most imbecilic evangelical outfits started a “Forty Days of Prayer” campaign on 29th January. It makes amusing reading, and I’m not just talking about the spelling mistakes or the garbled corporate speak drawn from some dire, downmarket self-help manual.

For example, on 27th February, punters are asked to “Pray for the work of HEAR (Humanity and Equality in Abortion Reform). Ask for the wisdom, strength and grace of Jesus for those who lead this important campaign. Ask God to guide us as a church in our corporate and personal responses to the forthcoming abortion bill.”

And on 2nd March, they should “Pray for the support groups which meet regularly in our premises – Stauros, Supper Club, 3S, Life pregnancy support. Ask that people will find God’s healing love through the people who minister to them.”

For those not in the know, Stauros started as a “get-out-of-jail-free” drug rehabilitation scam for Loyalist prisoners run by evangelicals and has spread to parts of the British isles where they were resettled. Think AA, run by even more manipulative figures with absolutely no training or relevant knowledge.

Life pregnancy support is a pro-life organisation, so badly run that it all but vanished in the UK and until a year or so ago was also almost extinct here. Their chief tactic is psychological abuse of any unfortunate woman who falls for their vaguely worded newspaper advert promising “support”.

I’m also intrigued that on 21st February they’re praying for “Aliens”. Having dismissed the idea that they want to save ET’s soul, I idly wondered if this might be some well meant intent to worry about the plight of refugees.

Sadly not. It appears that “Aliens” is their in-house term for kids from families who aren’t already cult members who might get drawn in via their unofficial youth club. The official one, I should explain, closed when educational department funding was withdrawn on police advice, after investigations revealed some pretty salubrious activity.

Given how often the cult in question uses emotive and fact-free appeals to panhandle public money, it is almost a relief to see them begging their Imaginary Invisible Friend for help instead. But even if I thought he did exist, if he really was omnipotent and all-seeing I cannot imagine why he would answer their prayers.

Manx education – a contradiction in terms

A couple of days ago, when two teachers took seriously my daughter’s concerns about a mouthy homophobe in her class, had a quiet word with the lad and caused him to apologise, I was almost ready to rethink my long-term opinion of the Manx education system. And as a parent, there are days when you worry about it. And then there are days, like today, when you more than worry. On those, you just go ballistic at the sheer cretinism of those running it.

Because today my daughter came home from school with the news that the town’s most notorious sexist, homophobic throwback is going to be giving sex education lessons. Apparently this will be OK because not only is he a clergyman, but also a prison chaplain. Though if we want to be quite accurate, he is neither of those things either.

He has no training in theology (no surprise as he can barely read or write), and only inherited the job of pastor at the town’s batshit-crazy Pentecostal outfit when his predecessor was finally put away for sex with underage girls.

Officially, he isn’t a prison chaplain either. His denomination is not one of the three with a right in law to appoint one, and has made no case to the prison service to do so. Instead, he slipped in on the back of another evangelical outfit’s “prison rehabilitation” scheme as an unofficial prison visitor. I say unofficial because there is a government scheme whereby about half a dozen prison visitors are appointed by a committee, and they haven’t interviewed or approved him either.

But it gets worse.

Firstly, this freak was one of the church elders who helped in the cover-up of his predecessor’s behaviour. Their actions included going round to the families of victims to tell them that if they ever testified in court not only would they be thrown out of the church, but unable to work on the island or live without harassment in any island community.

Secondly, when one of his star pupils got a girl pregnant and she wouldn’t marry him, the pastor went into her workplace (a local chip shop) to denounce her in front of the Friday night queue, and had to be thrown off the premises. Imagine that – a man of the cloth who has to be barred from a chip shop for anti-social behaviour.

Thirdly, when the Manx government held a public consultation on the advisability of allowing same sex marriage a couple of years back, his was one of the most virulent, repulsive responses – even amongst the collection of knuckle-dragging neanderthals who run a variety of breakaway cults attracting no more than two men and a dog , having been deemed too weird for any of the major denominations.

He is, in short, someone too dangerous and stupid ever to be allowed into the same room as children or vulnerable adults. Yet, because both the prison service and education department are riddled with incompetence and ignorance, not only is he allowed to do both, but getting paid from public funds.

If I thought the Education Minister could read and write I’d complain. But I can’t remember a literate one in almost three decades. So what would be the point?

Looking on the bright side, at least this piece of human effluent will serve one useful function. As they do whenever an evangelical is sent to the school, my daughter and her friends are going to have enough material to keep them in hysterics for weeks.

Though I still wish the head teacher – or whoever chooses such chumps – had enough common sense to find at least one rational adult who might actually be capable of educating, informing or inspiring young people for a change.

The importance of not being earnest

It’s been quite a weekend for anyone interested in the social circle around Jeff Bernard.

Firstly, yesterday morning there was the announcement of John Hurt’s death. It was of particular interest to me because, in addition to being a personal friend of Bernard’s (who nicknamed him “the Naked Elephant Man”), Hurt actually portrayed both Quentin Crisp and Jeff Bernard on screen and stage. His role as Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (and later An Englishman in New York) are key elements in the virtual canonisation of that unique individual. And, as I mentioned here, he took the lead role in a BBC radio production of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell just a year or so ago. So, great talent, one of the last of the real Soho boho scene, and will be sadly missed.

Then, last night, there were not one but two BBC productions about Francis Bacon. I missed the first, partly because I had other things to do, partly because if an “arts” programme about Bacon sought the opinion of Damien Hirst then that indicates abysmal research, and would never be worth wincing through in case of accidental delights. See Brian Sewell on both and you will soon understand why.

But the second – advertised as a bio-drama about the tragic relationship between Bacon and George Dyer (whose “introduction” to Bacon was falling through his studio ceiling while trying to rob it) – well, that was absolutely different. Even though it only started at 1 AM I was never going to miss it, especially as the director was John Maybury, who really does straddle a border between film and painting with his extraordinary visuals.

I was not disappointed, even though I’m still only waking up as I write. Now I really do understand why Bacon made that flip remark about the only way to get through life being to regard nearly everything and everyone as unimportant. Maybe Quentin Crisp’s ruling that the first rule of being a stylist has to be “Live alone” also applies.

Like both, I’m joking but seriously. It must be absolute hell for someone as driven as Bacon to portray the world in a way not yet accepted or understood yet also find love or just be close to another person.

Maybe this odd relationship between two totally different outsiders was purely symptomatic of the times in which it happened. Maybe now, with gay relationships gone mainstream, and most gays making it clear they just want to be as dull and suburban as everybody else, it would be totally different.

But somehow I don’t think so. For myself, I’ve accepted that I can’t pursue the only things that interest and drive me full time, and by so doing ignore or destroy the lives of people I have responsibilities to. I’ve accepted that I’m stuck in a job which means nothing in order to pay the bills in a venal, nonsensical world, and will have to find the discipline to do the good stuff elsewhere.

The main thing is that, like Bacon, I can regard nearly everyone and everything as totally unimportant. It’s just that the people and stuff that don’t matter are centred on my employment, or political, social and economic inconveniences of the era. I find ways to negotiate them, but will never, ever give them the satisfaction of taking them seriously or letting them get to me.

And the people that do matter are family and some close friends – the only people for whom I consider making time out from my “real work”, which isn’t strictly art, or journalism, and certainly not politics, which can’t be valued in any accounts ledger, and which doesn’t even bring me an income.

Odd and totally impractical as this all is, it is all I can do, and the ludicrous pursuit of it all that makes getting up in the morning worthwhile.

Maya culpa

A new year resolution is falling apart rapidly. With my track record I’m only amazed it has taken a month.

I’d decided that this year I really must read something more challenging than the literary equivalent of comfort food. There is no excuse. The more I root round my excellent town library, the more hidden gems I discover. In the last couple of weeks alone I found an entire aisle of world literature by authors even I’ve barely heard of or never read.

It was all going so well until this morning, when I relapsed. And the fault lies entirely with Herman Hesse, not me. But then, me and Herman the German have history, so maybe I should have known better.

The thing is, almost 40 years back I was a recent school-leaver on a night shift in one of those Victorian mental hospitals – a real gothic pile on the edge of Dartmoor, would you believe. Back in the days before round-the-clock TV I’d been warned to take a book, as nothing happened for hours and the senior nurses inevitably left us trainees to mind the fort while they slipped into a side-room and slept.

Now this was just at that cusp between the hippy and punk era, when Hesse, Huxley and similar Mystic Megs were required reading, so I thought I’d better give Siddhartha a go. It’s only 100 pages, just long enough to fill all the hours between the ward of neurotics going to bed, dosed to the gills with major tranquillisers, and the idle sod who was supposed to supervise me waking up to raid the breakfast trolley before any patients could get near it.

So, around 5 AM I was some 80 pages into this psycho-babble (and being a mere callow youth totally convinced) when a very worried patient burst into the office. He’d woken up to answer the call of nature, only to find a dead bloke in the ward toilets. The bloke had apparently gone in some time before, sat down, had a coronary and quietly died.

This, by the way, isn’t as unique as it might sound. Older patients often had bad hearts, got no exercise because they were too under the liquid cosh to walk more than a few yards and constipated due to atrocious diet, with inevitable results. I suspect that if a researcher was able to make exhaustive surveys of death certificates from such places before they all finally vanished in the 1990’s the two leading causes of death would be (1) pneumonia (known in those days as “the old man’s friend”) and (b) coronary induced by over-exertion on the WC. Of course, grieving relatives were always spared the information about the location and cause of the coronary.

Somehow, sheer coincidence as it was and completely not my fault (as I was assured at length by hospital management afterwards), I was never able to reconcile the ponderous message of the novel about everything being right in the world providing you contemplated your navel 24/7 and that some poor, totally innocent sod had died a painful, lonely death in what was supposed to be a safe place while I was so absorbed by this hippy-trippy claptrap. I have never gone near a book by Hesse or any similar writer from that day until this morning.

When I thought I should give him another chance, and within an hour of opening it at home wished I had never bothered. This time I had a fit of the giggles within two pages, was laughing like a drain within 10 and eventually chucked the book aside in sheer exasperation after about 40.

Seriously – what a premier league wibble merchant. So self-absorbed it’s a wonder he never vanished up his own anus.

I couldn’t help noticing that neither the heroic truth seeker nor any other space cadet in the book seemed to have a job, any responsibilities, or indeed any real world distraction to prevent them sitting under a shady tree for hours, days or even years contemplating the mysteries of the universe. They took it for granted that this was such vital “work” that if they needed a meal, clean clothes, or money they could stand at some ordinary person’s door until they got it, without thanking the donor, or indeed feeling the need to even speak. Apparently that would have been beneath them and the donor should just feel grateful they were chosen. And only one solitary woman made an appearance in the pages, as a courtesan, allowing our hero yet another chance to be smug.

From what I’ve read elsewhere, that seems to about sum up the lives of Hesse and his circle too – the 1920’s equivalents of trustafarians. On the other hand, people who are genuinely on the streets, reduced to begging for small change, routinely have some angry office worker snarl “Get a job” at them. If only a few world leaders (or just Hollywood airheads) could say that when the likes of the Dalai Lama or Pope are tapping them for funds, there might be less trouble in the world.

Schmuck down

Last Sunday I was at the local Holocaust Memorial Day service. This shouldn’t be a cause of merriment, except when it offers a chance to mock people with irrational prejudices and too much power. And especially when I suspect the joke was created by those who are too often their victims.

As a rule, I avoid sick-fests which pass for national remembrance ceremonies, especially faith-led ones. I despise bigots and freeloaders on any day of the year, so why would I waste time watching them pretend to show remorse for tragedies, while denying their role in causing them?

Holocaust Memorial Day, though, is slightly different. Firstly, it didn’t originate as a church service, secondly the organisers do all they can to prevent it just turning into one, and thirdly they are genuinely interested in stressing that such pointless hate still goes on.

They are handicapped by politicians who will not attend any national ceremony unless it is led by a priest, and also by the tendency of professional religionists to jump on any grief bandwagon. Despite this, some of the organisers have used the service to point fingers at hatred in all its forms, and have twice given me a chance to do the same.

So, in turn, I try to support them and, in being there, make the point that this is not just another empty prayer-fest and that the non-religious cannot be shut out. This year I wasn’t a speaker, so made myself useful by chauffeuring some people who were there to sing in a choir.

It is also quite funny watching the various churches jockey for a role in the day. One aspect is the competition to host it (as the government won’t make a public building available). This sees the different denominations take a turn but, according to their place in the religious pecking order, most still get barred from leading the service. Then there is the competition to do the various bible readings. By tradition, the Governor does one and the Chief Minister used to (but now gives a short, non-religious, address), which leaves one for another church leader from one of the minor denominations.

And this year it really couldn’t have been a less appropriate church leader, or a worse speaker. This one is “lead pastor” in an obnoxious evangelical cult with seriously dodgy links and, for the last two months, at the centre of media speculation after it emerged that his church aggressively pumped the congregation to buy him a luxury house. I suppose the choice was made before the story broke and, being so brass-necked, he probably refused to withdraw to preserve the dignity of the day. On the other hand, as his cult’s reputation has always been far from spotless, you have to wonder just how clueless his fellow faith leaders are if they proposed him in the first place.

Well, at least we had a chance to find out if he truly was the kind of charismatic who manages to part the gullible from their life savings. All I can say is, if this charmless windbag really did, there must be a substantial number of Manx people with double digit IQs and no link to the real world.

Originally from “Norn Eyeland”, he is just as loud as Ian Paisley, but slyly chose to avoid obvious comparisons by adopting a weird mid-Atlantic accent, like some pretentious 1970’s DJ. Inevitably he chose a passage from Leviticus which, equally inevitably, was totally irrelevant (seemingly only chosen because it mentions the children of Israel) and very, very long. Looking round the church, it was hilarious watching the assembled clergy cringe as he chuntered on and on, and on, shouting louder, and louder. When he finally stopped there must have been a full two minute pause before the next participant felt brave enough to continue.

It marks the first time such a solemn occasion left me desperately biting my hand to avoid laughing out loud. I almost suspect that an arrogant bigot and his supporters were set up as the punch-line in a very wry Jewish joke.

Whatever, but on the way home one of my passengers and I had to wait until I’d dropped off the god-fearing before pulling into a layby to shriek with laughter.

Oy, yoy yoy…what a schmuck!

2017? Already?

Eight days into the new year, and I haven’t added to this blog since before Christmas. What a slob. Do I have an excuse and, come to think of it, do I have anything to say anyway?

Well, yes and no, to both questions.

After a brief respite in the days between Christmas and New Year when management was largely absent (and so the place largely worked) The Unpleasantness got even more so.

Whenever a manager was absent, part of my job used to be to double-check colleagues’ work and authorise updates to databases. This also allowed me (without going through six levels of managerial approval) to discreetly correct, for example, any number of annoying little spelling and grammatical errors that had crept in over the years.

It was a minor responsibility, enabling small but satisfying victories over corporate stupidity, and I can no longer do it. Because one of the managers took time out from the permanent civil war with other managers to nominate the task to a younger fellow TROLI (Tabloid Reader of Limited Intelligence). So, now I cannot do my job at the most basic level without having every comma authorised by a management drone clone who is – frankly – illiterate. As a consequence, in the last week work has become a very, very slow and frustrating process, and will become even more so as the year goes on.

Under normal circumstances I would grit my teeth, get through the day, then come home to saner surroundings. Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot go into here, my former place of refuge from a lunatic world has also become an asylum of absolutely the wrong kind.

When all else failed, I used to be able to retreat to a back room and read a book quietly, or just go to bed. At present, I cannot even do that until my fellow lunatics decide to stop crashing around and turn off a battery of phones, laptops and other distractions which they take everywhere – and I mean everywhere.

And as if the insults to my intelligence and mental maladies were not enough, a painful old physical problem decided to return over Christmas. Tests ordered by the only doctor I could see in December were inconclusive, I can’t get to see my own doctor, the pain is getting worse and, while I am hobbling around like a pensioner, I am also determined not to resort to painkillers or take time off work before I have worked out strategies to sidestep the latest side-effects of micro-mismanagement.

All in all then, not a great start to the year. Yet again, I suppose I will get through it by adopting Francis Bacon’s attitude, i.e. that the only way to survive life is to regard very, very nearly everything as totally unimportant. And to that I would add “and to regard very, very nearly everyone and everything you must deal with as a bit of a joke”.