Unwell? Moi?

I haven’t posted for a while because ….well, things have been difficult. Still are, actually, but if I don’t get back into the writing habit soon I may never do so.

The problem wasn’t exactly writers block. I met obligations to write for publication elsewhere, but got mugged too often by real life to put anything up here.

This was no classic “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” situation. It was those around me who were unwell – at the most inconvenient times – and I was the only available nursemaid. Likely themes came up, I’d write a sentence or two, then emergencies arose and by the time things had calmed down the issue was dead and further comment would be irrelevant.

Now a Christmas break from “The Unpleasantness” brings a rare chance to regroup before 2018 and “business as abnormal”. I intend making the most of it.

Stuff I’ve experienced since I last wrote makes me realise some things are gone – forever – and some things that used to matter to me no longer do. I have lost the patience to wait for some people to change, or even start acting with common decency.

Time to follow the path not chosen because of my naive belief that if you treat people right they always respond in kind. Sadly not; some just get their snouts deep in the trough and forget everything else.

I am not about to join them. If anything, I will be trying harder than ever to spread sweetness and light to humanity. Just not to those who refuse to do the same.

So be warned, in 2018 this blog may change direction. With a certain amount of baggage now shed, I even hope it will become lighter and funnier.

Right, that’s it. Blockage over, back on track.

Deep joy.


No such thing as a free lunch?

This week’s news (see https://www.manx.net/isle-of-man-news/84481/government-to-end-contract-which-supports-the-delivery-of-meals-on-wheels) that the Manx government is to stop paying Age Concern to deliver Meals on Wheels left me unmoved. Mostly because they weren’t delivering them anyway. Like most other government “partnerships” with their third sector sock puppets, the whole idea was little more than a badly camouflaged attempt by civil servants to look as if they give a flying one about the needy.

In fact, the only thing about the story that surprises me is that some anonymous apparatchik even bothered to check. Well, that and the novel idea that when they actually found public money being poured down the drain someone thought of turning the tap off.

I’m also amused when people still refer to Age Concern as a charity, or think that their staff are involved in helping older people, rather than themselves.

To understand what’s really going on, you need to look at the UK parent, Age UK – the bastard offspring of a 2009 shotgun wedding between two charity industry dinosaurs, Age Concern and Help The Aged. Their executives agreed the merger rather than continue to fight over a potential income field of over £50 million.

It worked, and spawned a UK empire of nominally independent regional charities with a combined annual income of £47 million from charity shops and similar sources, but a much bigger £100 million income from a commercial arm – Age Concern Enterprises. Most of that is from iffy tie-ups with other shysters who prey on the old, such as insurance companies, holiday firms, nursing and respite care, etc. etc.

In fact, it gets worse. The empire also has a global arm – Age International. Will the social concern ever start?

The Manx operation has long been a joke. Right from the point where their first CEO deserted a perpetual free lunch at the Hospice to run a new “good cause” through the bottom of her gin glass. I remember, for example, that during the bird flu scare a few years ago Age Concern’s rep startled government officials at a planning meeting by asking if Meals on Wheels drivers could be issued with firearms.

At the time I wrote it off as the half-cut twitterings of yet another blue-rinse aristo. I even remember joking with someone about vans with gun turrets manned by red-faced retired colonels.

Then, a couple of days ago, someone who exactly fits that stereotype chimed in to say vets were displeased by the planned cuts. This was the same tweedy old barfmat who, a couple of months back, also claimed vets would be displeased if they had to start paying for a TV licence. Oh, and is first in the queue for free alcohol at every state subsidised national military commemoration.

So this weekend alone that’s two consecutive mornings without him having to buy his own drink then. No wonder the government has no money to pay for essential services for the elderly.

Peace in our time

Has it really been a month?

Oh well, doesn’t time fly when you’re enjoying yourself? Or even when you’re not.

The truth is, I was busy elsewhere – sometimes even productively. As an almost accidental side-effect of another project, I even got published.

The funniest thing is, having totally misread a deadline, I had to produce what was supposed to be a long and thoughtful piece in just over an hour, in between doing the washing up and going shopping. I hit “send” with my better half banging on the door yelling “Oy, are you ready yet?” Life in the real world, eh?

The project, by the way, was that in response to what is becoming an ever more militaristic, jingoistic Manx community I wanted to look into more positive things, such as opposing the arms trade, conflict resolution and ways of – in general – heading off wars rather than rushing blindly into new ones.

It also seemed useful to find out if there was any Manx tradition of this that we simply don’t hear about. I had idly wondered, for example, if there were any Manx World War One conscientious objectors.

Thanks to the friendly staff at the Manx Museum Library, and then the Imperial War Museum, I now know the answer is “Yes”. To be precise, six registered, four weeded out and sent on other war work by the brutal treatment of the authorities, two “absolutists” who sat naked in prison cells in mid-winter rather than put on the uniform which was regarded by their captors as evidence that they withdrew their application. One, Elijah A. Oliver, refused to cooperate so completely that his jailors were reduced to carrying him everywhere on a stretcher.

I also unearthed a forgotten direct link between British atheists and International Conscientious Objectors Day on May 23rd, the permanent memorial to peacemakers and conscientious objectors at Tavistock Square, London, and the annual ceremony on that day and in that place. This was, in fact, the subject of my hurried article.

Even more interesting and poignant – in 2015 Elijah A. Oliver, the Manx “absolutist” mentioned above, was amongst the names remembered at that ceremony. His name was picked at random from an international record of all conscientious objectors. Sadly, absolutely nobody on the Isle of Man knew of this, so there was no Manx contingent to pay their respects.

Discovering all of this has started me wondering if we might do more locally to celebrate and remember such inspiring dissidence. An old Brighton friend of Bill McIlroy, the National Secular Society secretary who, in 1976, sparked the campaign which eventually led to ICOD and the Tavistock memorial, suggested I help establish Bill’s greater dream for local manifestations of such memorials and ceremonies.

It would be another little piece of hope in an aggressive, selfish world, wouldn’t it?

The word is charity, not church

I had a revealing conversation with some good people this morning. From it I learnt that I’m not the only well meaning liberal concerned by a particularly Manx problem.

In a nutshell, an important local charity is concerned that people don’t get involved because much of the public (inaccurately) think it’s faith-led. This, in turn, is a further problem because after recent scandals many locals now (quite fairly) mistrust evangelicals.

I can’t identify the charity for various reasons, but I can say it’s a tragedy if they’re not trusted by the wider community as they do vital work. It is also a tragedy that the misunderstanding is not of their making. And the greatest tragedy is that this charity exists in order to banish prejudice and increase our understanding of the wider world.

It really matters that when their workers go into local schools to run voluntary activities the kids do not dismiss them as yet another bunch of grasping happy clappies. In fact, Manx kids must engage with such ideas if they are ever to be inspired to do something more productive than shift money round the world while destroying mineral rich (but politically bankrupt) countries in the developing world.

It doesn’t help that the Manx government still have a 19th century arrangement under which major church leaders have regular meetings with social services staff, and are automatically consulted whenever there’s a new initiative. That isn’t a statutory procedure, by the way, just a convention dating back to pre-welfare state days which nobody seems to have questioned.

The real problem may be that the island – effectively – moved straight from the days when charity was dispensed by “the parish” to “the deserving poor” into the Thatcherite dismantling of the welfare state, so never developed the UK system of highly evolved and professional local government. As a result, when Manx civil servants see a social issue looming they cover their ears until the outcry gets too loud to ignore, then throw some government cash at a priest and walk away.

It is also unhelpful that even public spirited Christians rarely have a social circle that goes much further than the churches, so their charitable model doesn’t go beyond religious duty. On the other hand, it is increasingly a problem that UK atheist organisations won’t think about charity or the public and third sectors at all – beyond how to get on a state gravy train where churches have been first class passengers for so long.

So, how do we break out of that circular logic on the Isle of Man whereby whenever someone says “charity” the listener unconsciously thinks “church” and most of us shut off?

One thing is clear. There is no point in saying “the government should do something about it”. As any Manx person with first hand understanding of either local or international issues already knows, our politicians and civil servants know far less than any member of the public who regularly reads a decent newspaper. And they are not interested in being educated.

No, we ordinary members of the public are going to have to grasp the nettle. If we want a decent society we are going to have to take it upon ourselves to reach over the fence, put aside our preconceptions……and start talking.

It’s only a small island. So how hard can that be?

Manx Death

A small announcement in a local free magazine this week made me rather sad. Apparently, Manx Life, the island’s longest running monthly, is closing . Officially it’s being amalgamated into another dying magazine, but in practice it is no more. I haven’t actually bought a copy in years, but I’m still sorry to see it go.

The thing is, I started my local journalism career as editorial assistant on Manx Life in its best era. It has had many – some good, some not so good, and at least two absolutely dire.

I got there just as a solid if dull version was bought by new owners, so was in on the creation of a Manx legend. The local magazine old guard were somewhat sniffy about us – mostly because the new management quite rightly decided to employ contributors who wouldn’t send the readership to sleep. Several of them went to work on rival publications, all of which repeated dire old formulas and folded within a few issues.

Meanwhile, we had well written, solidly researched, local history, in depth coverage of serious issues, great photography…oh, and wit. There was even a monthly walking column which covered out-of-the-way places in such a charming way that rambling made a bit of a come-back. One of my jobs was to (anonymously) write the introductory page, and it actually became something readers raved about as much as the ‘proper’ features.

I loved my time there, and only left because I was leaving the island. When I came back almost a decade later it was with the intention of carrying on where I’d left off. Sadly, that was not to be.

There was a six month gap between me arranging to come back from Europe and working out my contract elsewhere. In that time a business deal to take on a government publishing contract was sabotaged by the Celtic equivalent of the Stasi, so Manx Life had to be sold off to pay off the debts.

It was bought by a publisher who also produced Manx Tails – an in flight magazine for the local airline – and Sea Breezes, an equivalent for the ferry company. They tried their hand at something bigger and paid for, using their in-house hacks for material that was way beyond them. It was possibly the worst era in the magazine’s history. Meanwhile the airline folded, then the ferry changed hands and the new management saw no need for a magazine to distract seasick passengers.

Eventually Manx Tails was re-launched as an all-island free distribution job. Later, Manx Life returned to something like the model we produced, with some regular contributors but no real features or in-depth coverage of current events. If nothing else, it was at least a magazine with proper articles that went beyond 200 words, rather than advertorial intertwined with photos of drunken farmers and business louts.

Now, it seems, even that no longer sells. Maybe the attention span of readers has diminished to Twitter length banalities. Or maybe people just browse the net and don’t buy magazines any more. But for whatever reason both publications have been amalgamated into a single A5 mag with the odd 50 word chunter to fill out the spaces between ads for private pensions and new kitchens.

Can Manx people no longer read, or is it that Manx journos can no longer write? Either way, a sad day.

Goodbye porkie pies

Until today, I was a lifetime member of the National Secular Society. Not any more.
Yesterday, I was sent http://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2017/09/religious-segregation-under-one-roof-proposed-for-isle-of-man-school by a Manx born activist, now living in the UK, who was curious to know what I might be doing about it. The answer is cancelling my NSS membership.

In brief, the story is nonsense, as I told them months ago. They got on to it after being contacted by someone who was ill informed (and who had incidentally contacted me first). I looked into it, realised that the contact’s fears were groundless, but advised them who to talk to in order to get the truth and some reassurances. For reasons of their own, they chose to contact the NSS with their inaccuracies instead of resolving any real issue.

As a writer on both faith-based bigotry and religious privilege, as well as chairman of the local atheist group, I’ve been in regular contact with the NSS over the years – though the information flow is somewhat one-sided.

I inform them of things they might want to know about and ask for information on other matters. They rarely act on my information (so I cause it to be published outside the UK and months or even years later they catch up).When they do reply to my queries it seems they know far less about the topic than I already do. But more often, they don’t respond at all.

Still, we know each other – I even wrote the first review of their president’s autobiography, for an international atheist publication, which led to it being picked up elsewhere and getting good sales. So when the NSS contacted me about the St. Thomas’s story, and I gave them the facts (obtained direct and in off-the-record briefings from those at the coalface) I would reasonably expect them to hold fire.

Sadly, they chose to embroider half-truths and folk myths instead, as a way of tagging the Manx story onto a UK agenda which is also – largely – a deliberate misunderstanding, but does have the positive effect (for them) of stirring up other ill-informed folk who might possibly take out NSS membership.

Then again, this is the organisation which – until just a couple of years ago – employed as a campaigner the Islamophobic rabble-rouser Anne Marie Waters. Yes, the one who failed to gain the UKIP leadership yesterday. As a monitor of the far right for many years, I warned the NSS leadership privately about her real background and agenda a few years ago too. Again, they didn’t listen. Increased membership is key, it appears, even if it results in the (now suspended) chat facility for their weekly e-bulletins turning into something seemingly dominated by horrible Little Englanders – and worse.

Even sadder, this is the second time in under six months they’ve done this with a Manx story. The first time they did it was a belated response to a query I made to them last year about evangelical opportunism in Manx schools. By the time they did respond, I had already dealt with the matter, as I then informed them.

The NSS briefly used a largely inaccurate summary of the Manx case anyway, as a Trojan horse to publicise their potential campaign against unrelated UK phenomena. The Manx media touched on it, which caused the usual below-the-line muttering on local media websites from the usual bigots, but, in truth, there was no longer a story or an issue.

As it happens, the opportunist and bigot at the heart of it actually left the island last week, having had all sources of government revenue closed down to him. The details are too long and complicated to go into here, but let’s just say that if someone is determined enough to log evidence on inappropriate behaviour and abuse of religious privilege for years, then eventually there is so much of it that even the most myopic civil servant has to act.

Anyway, that’s all history now. In the time I was failing to get responses from the major UK atheist groups to queries on topics that now interest me, I started to get them from other sources – better informed, less opportunistic, not interested in turning molehills into mountains as a way to create a job for life. It has been a positive alternative to the mean-minded porkies perpetuated by career atheists, so for the future that is where I spend my limited free time.

Lest we ….. oh, just forget it

Until the local paper ran a one page feature on it, I was totally unaware of yet another dire local “war remembrance” project. This one planted a sapling for every Manx recruit who died in World War One over a one acre site which – I suppose – will eventually become a small forest, dominated by a large, crude and inappropriate cross.

The cross carries the message “Lest we forget”, which is ironic. Most of the island didn’t even know the project was happening or what it entailed, and few will ever go there. Within a year or two, even the vets who might be interested will be dead, and then what?

It isn’t that we have forgotten about World War One – there are so many pointless, fact free, local heritage projects about it that we cannot. It is that anyone with the slightest real knowledge of the subject wants nothing to do with this maudlin drivel.

Inevitably, the project was opened with a prayer service, led by the island’s second most senior cleric to receive a public sector salary in return for providing no public service. He was accompanied by the Lieutenant Governor, the representative from local ex-services organisations who lobbied for the island to get a chance to play at weekend soldiers again and the politician who granted that wish – after lots of chances to drive a tank and other childish jollies laid on by the British Army.

Which is all a bit ironic. Because the reason so many Manxmen died needlessly in World War One is that they were sent there by the junta then ruling the island, whereby the Lieutenant Governor used the other Crown appointees of the time (the Bishop, the Vicar General and the Attorney General) to over-rule any opposition from elected politicians. Not that there was much of that, because even half of the politicians were too busy war profiteering.

For some odd reason, neither that, nor the 1917 poll tax strike by island landladies against rates set at levels based on full boarding houses (when there were neither guests nor male workers due to the war) have been mentioned in all these heritage stunts around WW1 themes. Which is even more ironic, as a book giving a contemporaneous account of such events, written by a man who was imprisoned for leading the strike, was republished by Manx Heritage just a few years ago and is freely available in the Manx Museum shop.

So what’s even more obscene than the tasteless cross (and the use of bogus history to excuse expensive 21st century soldier games) is that history we could all learn from was never mentioned, thanks to the very organisations we entrust to preserve our heritage and teach local history to new generations.