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?


Heaven knows they’re miserable now

The latest issue of a bi-monthly atheist magazine I write for arrived today; yet again my piece didn’t appear in it. True, the last time it was because a deadline was changed at the last minute and I missed it, but other omissions are a bit of a mystery. The copy was early, absolutely the right length, positive, and not contentious. In general then, no different to a system that has worked well for over a decade, and through two major overhauls of the magazine’s format.

I begin to see a pattern here. A few months ago I contacted both of the UK’s atheist associations to ask if they knew anything about an odd evangelical initiative posing as a “life skills” course that had just appeared in Manx high schools.

For three months nobody replied. Then, just as the issue had been aired and almost buried here, one contacted me for local input on a press release they planned to all UK media. I helped, they quoted me vaguely but didn’t use the relevant information I gave them, and tagged the whole Manx element onto a general whinge about another evangelical group and another “educational” Trojan horse.

Undeterred, I tried the full story on the editor of two international atheist publications who have used my reports on a number of Manx issues. Again, such reports have been a mixture of humour and positivity, chronicling times we’ve seen powerful religious figures do something unacceptable, raised it in public and with government, and won.

It’s all part of a continuing story about how, over a decade or so, a tiny atheist group has tackled such issues in our tiny country and, with some persistence, brought about social change. This happened not so much by screaming, shouting and name-calling but by hard fact and negotiation with people who are our neighbours and workmates, not anonymous bogeymen. Again, though I tried twice to make sure it had been received, the story was never used.

The cynic in me wonders if it’s because Manx atheists succeed, while our blowhard colleagues elsewhere do not. Far from the growing force that they’d like to think they are, to me atheists all around the British isles resemble the Labour Party, condemned forever to be in opposition and never in power. The Celtic ones in particular just cannot shake off that romantic loser self-image and plan for power or social change. Part of me wonders if they simply cannot handle success or responsibility.

Oh well, their loss. On the Isle of Man we have a brand of atheism that is responsible, socially engaged …. and works. If atheists elsewhere would rather act like a Morrissey fan club than hear about it why should I worry?

War on pap

This may sound harsh, but I’m sick of the media reports and popular chat about the Manchester bombing, and twice as irritated by the displays of flowers and heart-shaped balloons.

All those upbeat stories and vapid promises that the community will come together and won’t let this beat them? It won’t, and there was no community in the first place. That’s why people WHO LIVE THERE did it.

If you want community spirit, look at any city in Syria, where an incident like this is business as usual – on a quiet day. Look at all the other sectarian bomb attacks on rival Muslim communities or Christians throughout the Middle East in the last week.

Oh but of course, you can’t. Because the UK media has been so obsessed with Manchester it hasn’t found time to report them. And could it also be that the most recent unreported attacks would reflect badly on UK or US links to those perpetrating them?

But it wasn’t until I noticed that a TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale starts tonight that I really thought this through and recognised something else. The terrorists have failed, not because Brits are strong enough to get over such attacks, but because they don’t even value the victims.

The thing is, this was an attack on contemporary Western culture, i.e. pop culture. Now pop culture (much to the annoyance of indie and “serious” rock fans) may well revolve around 13 year old girls, but it doesn’t actually like them. It just values them as consumers – or more precisely their ability to demand product from their parents.

That whole “princess” thing about daughters is a myth. As I keep discovering when talking to other parents, boys are valued, but for most lower middle class families girls are at best domestic workhorses to help around the house while they grow up, then married off ASAP.

And what is this strange 21st century obsession in such families for girls to learn to dance or sing? Witness the endless stream of girls from loser families who can sing a bit on talent shows. Even through the TV screen you can almost smell the desperation. If the audition doesn’t go well it’s back to the lottery and scratch cards.

Can you – seriously – imagine such families pouring all their resources into a girl who wanted to be, say, a scientist? Come to think of it, can you even imagine a bookshelf in the house?

And that attitude doesn’t just run through sink estates. It has long ceased to surprise me how, even in the wealthiest families, the choice of a daughter’s university is determined by the opportunities to socialise and marry into the right family, and not the chance of gaining top class tuition and rising quicker in a chosen profession.

Which is why I think the terrorists got it all wrong. They were trying a form of psychological warfare which in Muslim culture goes back all the way to Hassan i-Sabbah and the Assassins….. but they miscalculated.

Hassan i-Sabbah’s strategy enabled a small force to prevail over a much stronger one by striking unexpectedly and in a devastating way which so shocked the enemy that it lost heart. The point was to prove that you were not only invincible, but prepared to do nightmarish things to win. It was a way of keeping your own casualties to the minimum, and not even necessarily inflicting any on the enemy while absolutely terrifying them in the process.

For example, one fabled Assassin tactic (which often followed months quietly working your way into the enemy camp) was to leave a dagger dipped in poison on the pillow of the enemy commander or prince. The next day you sent him a note telling him to surrender.

For more contemporary examples, consider the films before the second Gulf War of Iraqi guards in bizarre training rituals that involved things like eating dogs. To Western observers this was plain weird, but for Muslims who regard dogs as haram to see fellow Muslims crazed enough to do this it would have been alarming.

There is also the Boko Haram capture of Nigerian schoolgirls for conversion and sale as sex slaves. It worked by striking right at the heart of everything the “enemy” held dear. These were girls with dreams of growing up and becoming teachers or doctors. Girls loved and supported in those dreams not just by their families but whole communities.

But it won’t work here because (sigh) while Brits pretend to indulge and put little girls on pedestals they do not actually like them very much. Especially when they stop being cute and try to act like adults.

No, if ISIS were really serious, and better informed, they’d have bombed Crufts. Or maybe they should find a way to hack all those fluffy kitten clips on You-Tube.

Or maybe not. Mistreat a dog in the UK and there’ll be a petition to bring back the death penalty. Child abuse? Mainstream Britain doesn’t even acknowledge it, unless it can be pinned on someone who is neither white nor Christian.

A homelessness survey that isn’t

Having had more than a passing interest in Manx homelessness for decades I read out of curiosity, then got slightly annoyed.

Sadly, either the reporter was not granted direct access to the full survey (which would be par for the course), or hasn’t had time to study it (which would be understandable, given the skeleton staff with which Manx papers now have to be produced) or it isn’t what it appears to be (which is definitely par for the course).

The thing is, Graih isn’t the island’s homelessness charity. That is Housing Matters, as I know because I helped set it up a decade ago. After an early attempt to derail negotiations between government and the HM steering committee, it was agreed that Graih would concentrate on the clientele which they had always worked with, i.e. single males for whom mental instability was the major issue, and housing difficulties a side-effect of that. The main reason for this was the practical difficulty of mentally unstable men being around vulnerable women and children.

So, Housing Matters would concentrate on the larger issues of homelessness, which would involve helping anyone in difficulty to find emergency accommodation, working with young people who leave home because of family issues, educating the public about homelessness and liaising with government to try and find long term solutions. Graih would deal solely with the small group of men they initially made contact with and anyone new introduced to them via that community.

To be honest, as becomes obvious each time I talk to one of their volunteers, Graih know very little about homelessness, almost as little about any form of mental illness, and rarely, if ever, come into contact with people whose major problem is housing. So, while I give them practical support when I can to do what they alone seem willing to do, they lack the specific skills or knowledge to conduct such a survey, which makes it misleading and even worthless for any serious or practical purpose.

Because what Graih really deal with is a long term consequence of the closure of old style mental institutions since the 1980’s, and the Thatcherite myth that anyone so displaced would be cared for and reintegrated into the community. They never were, and in addition all the core services which should have helped them have also been removed. No social workers, no qualified therapists for drug and alcohol dependency, and a wait of a year or more for places in even the tiny Manx mental health unit which remains, not just for overnight care of serious cases but even day clinics for common issues.

Graih are certainly at the more honourable end of those taking up the slack, but the greater problem is that, instead of providing professional help and facilities, government now hand such services over to religious amateurs who – to be absolutely blunt – are unqualified, sometimes dishonest, and often downright dangerous. Sometimes as much as those they are supposed to be helping.

In addition, those directly working for government are no better. To come right back to the key point of the story (information gathering on the homeless), a decade ago I sat in for Housing Matters, then called Kemmyrk (Manx gaelic for ‘shelter’) at an interdepartmental government meeting to consider a proposed database provided by the UK housing charity, Shelter, as a key part of a consultation. Basically, the database would be created by a 14 question report to be filled in by any government or charity employee who came into contact with a homeless person – police, social security, probation workers, women’s refuge, etc, etc.

As the results of this simple five minute task were fed back to a central database a picture would emerge of not only the numbers of homeless, but the types of people, the reasons and, in general, specific Manx factors which the government could then find ways to deal with. It could then provide both an annual governmental report and even a day-to-day analysis to allow those supervising to monitor and head off new issues.

Except that it never happened. Firstly because the managers of those who would have filled it in said it was too much work. Secondly because they didn’t like the questions.

The main problems were (1) that they wouldn’t prove that homelessness was due to foreigners (because it never has been) and (2) that it would prove that certain charities who mount emotional appeals for public money based on folk myths don’t actually have many clients, and those that they do have are mainly generated by the faith based homophobia and misogyny of the churches behind them. Nevertheless, the agreement taken away from the meeting was that department heads would get together and produce a simplified version, which should then be up and running within months and able to make at least an annual report to Tynwald within the year.

So, government has had the capability to do this survey properly for at least a decade, and by now should have had a detailed database in place which allows it to analyse and solve the specific problems of Manx homelessness. All of the potential contributors, if genuine, had an obvious interest in this happening, because it would have been all the evidence needed for funding their jobs, and for tailoring their services to meet actual need, rather than what some old wives’ tale thought it might be.

But it hasn’t happened. Because there is a steady flow of public money into private and third sector services which purport to deal with homelessness and allied social problems, based on a steady flow of folk myth unsullied by hard fact. On the other hand, hard facts would actually help any public body genuinely motivated to deal with homelessness, but in the process could make government failings crystal clear and derail a very nice gravy train.

I think we can safely assume that an effective database is never going to be put in place, can’t we?

Days of future past

I made my usual Saturday visit to the town library this morning and saw a funny thing.

The library is on the ground floor of the town hall, where the lobby – as usual – featured yet another heritage display. I have no idea why the lobby has ever-changing displays of Ramsey heritage when several years ago Quayle’s Hall, the town’s only decent venue for birthday parties and other small events, was handed over to the nostalgia mafiosi and renamed Ramsey Heritage Centre.

In theory, such displays are supposed to be mounted there in a purpose built space, but oddly they rarely are. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Quayle’s Hall is now -effectively – closed for good, after being permanently closed to the general public in order to be refitted at public expense, opened with a publically funded celebration as – effectively – a private club for a small local elite, then…… well, who knows, and I doubt many care.

When a mere “community facility”, Quayle’s Hall was in constant use – charity fairs, pantomimes and other little music shows, birthday parties, etc. etc. – often two or three evenings a week and at least twice daily over weekends when it was only bookable by the half day.

It was then closed, because the Commissioners claimed it was losing money, only to be handed over to the Ramsey branch of the Manx fake history industry, fitted out at great (central government) expense and then re-opened (inevitably yet another expensive ceremony cum private party for that), following which, so the plan went, the tourists would flock in to see an ever-changing display of local history.

Meanwhile, anyone wanting to put on a birthday party or charitable sale, we were told, could use one of the two major church halls. Which is why hardly anyone holds a birthday party or other true community event in Ramsey any more, because the church halls are too large, too expensive, and run by bigots who turn down any potential booking from actual members of the community who want to have fun and/or do something useful.

Meanwhile, the heritage displays in Quayle’s Hall hardly ever happen, and when they do the tourists have no interest – which anyone with an ounce of sense who had done half an hour’s research could have predicted. I can also reveal that, stripped of the bigwigs who make up the committee, the actual working membership of Ramsey Heritage Trust is two retired blokes who run a small shop selling old books and postcards. One is a good friend of many years, and I regularly point people in search of good local historical material to the shop, but I still do not understand why the town hall, rather than the purpose built facility, is putting on his displays.

Though the funniest thing this morning was not even all that, but that copies of a book entitled something like The Future Of The Isle Of Man had been left lying around prominently at the entrance to the lobby display. I couldn’t help noticing that it was a very, very short book. Shorter, in fact, than the average nostalgia pamphlet, and also, I suspect, as poorly written, factually inaccurate or irrelevant and as likely never to be read.

Well, at least it will be of nostalgic value, when incorporated into some future heritage display.

Christ on Prozac

This morning’s “inclement” weather wiped out the annual Strawberry Fair in the town’s Catholic church gardens. The event was carefully timed to catch passing trade from Ramsey’s Civic Week, which in turn hoped to clean up in Tynwald week.

If I sound amused by the ruined fair, that would be because I am. Three years ago, my wife – locally famous as an excellent baker for good causes – was asked to enter a cake in their Strawberry Fair cake contest. The prize is inconsequential and most enter just for fun, with all the cakes being sold off for church funds. Having friends at the church, she happily joined in, and to nobody’s surprise won.

Everyone involved looked forward to next year, and tasting another phenomenal cake. She obliged, but that year the priest invited his nephew – a novice priest with an intellect fit only for a Craggy Island posting – to be guest judge. So, about a dozen strawberry cakes to choose from and this prime candidate for canonisation chooses …. a cheesecake without even an ornamental strawberry. Because he only eats cheesecake.

Yes, seriously.

All making for a rainy but happy morning in this house. If only the rain keeps up for tomorrow, when the local Rotarians take over the park for their annual cringefest, yet again overrun by fake charities wanting more money to spread faith-based misogynism.

As per usual, my better half was cornered by a career criminal from one of the worst to provide cakes. Over the years, wiser locals either cross the street when such freaks approach or develop the diplomatic skills to sidestep constant demands on personal time.

Sadly, the light of my life is too kind, even to otherwise unemployable psychobabblers like this one. So, most of today lost while she bakes, and a big chunk of tomorrow lost delivering them and collecting the empties later.

Judging by past form, we also expect these panhandlers will pack away more than half of her produce for their own consumption, and would not put it past them to leave her minding the stall for the day because they are too lazy and ill-mannered to beg for their own loot.

By rights, we should get mad, but the chance to regularly observe people with room temperature IQs at close quarters is such a hoot. And their arrogance in considering themselves fit people to deal with social casualties is such a bad joke anyway.

Only last week, for example, the oldest sibling in a family of evangelical careerists we first heard of involved in some dodgy East European child adoption scheme proudly announced that the youngest family member has “returned to Jesus” after her post-school career path into the family business culminated in two years vegging out on heroin.

Wow, Jesus must be happy. When his most devoted followers are such losers I sometimes wonder if he can get through the day without industrial dosages of Prozac.

Perfect Day

Yesterday was Tynwald day, our national day, and I spent it (rather oddly) at the heart of all that’s worst about the nation doing something productive and enjoyable. On a field immediately behind the outdoor ceremony itself, to be precise, along with the greens, the evangelicals and the evangelical greens. It was like some bizarre Channel 4 documentary about a WI outing to Glastonbury, with slightly less mud.

As I do every Tynwald Day, I was on the stall for the local Amnesty group raising awareness of something awful, and trying to do something about it. This year was slightly different, in that we’re working on campaigns to do with sexual and reproductive rights for young girls and women and – as the island’s lack of legal facilities for abortion leaves a lot to be desired – helping women to campaign over that too.

All this was happening in what’s known as the Global Village, which started as an area for overseas aid charities and others running similar projects and in five years has developed into something pleasant. The first year, despite the odd collection of groups, was all very friendly with world music and food being shared, people popping over to and helping out with each other’s stalls, and so on. Each year since has had a slightly different collection of groups and events, as the most blatant moneygrubbers head for the main field instead but new groups discover us and come to join in.

It all ended on a positive note, with a sort of conga headed by Bulgarian dancers winding around the performing stage, picking up folk ranging from Africans to Manx folk dancers, old, young, and everything in between – the nearest thing yet to a rainbow coalition of what this place could be with a little more effort and good feeling.

BUT… the global village has developed, an increasing number of evangelical parasites have joined in, and I have to say lower the tone of the whole event. The danger is that they give the false impression that Christian charity is at the heart of the whole idea, when nothing could be further from the truth.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, I try to offer the hand of friendship as they fester and conspire in corners, arrayed in their drab Saturday casuals, prominent pictorial displays of their fake philanthropy surrounded by collecting buckets, glowering out at anything different in the world like so many relatives from hell at a wedding.

BUT… this year one crossed the line. I noticed the Baptists at the next stall muttering with their pro-life friends in the morning, before anything really got going. As requested by the organisers, we’d toned down the abortion reform material to discreet leaflets, so there seemed nothing to worry or complain about.

Then a workmate passing by laughingly remarked that, while punting for his spare change, they’d urged his family to boycott us. I thought he was winding me up, and I laughed back.

Then, a while later, one passer by made a point of walking away from their stall and prominently dropping notes into our collecting tin. Again, I thought nothing of it.

Then later, they hailed an Amnesty-supporting clergyman, and as he walked over to greet them, I distinctly heard one tell him he should be working for them, not us. Again, I passed it off as the sort of banter women on adjoining stalls might trade at a church fundraiser, and still thought nothing of it.

But then, on the way home, my wife – who knows some of them from a church where she helps with a (badly run) soup kitchen – mentioned that they’d said the same thing to her – and that they meant it absolutely seriously.

What a bunch of sad sacks. And what an advertisement for all that the best on this island are trying to get away from.

But the funniest thing is that the global village also now has a rigidly enforced class (or is it caste) system. This year some local premier league “pressure groups” deigned to join us plebs for the first time. For some reason this was regarded as a coup – or even a step forward – though it’s hard to see why.

Some of them annoy the general public more than all us little projects put together. Perhaps because, with their close links to government and numerous members with enough time and obsessive zeal to churn out pages of free waffle for the papers, the public cannot help but know they exist.

It was noticeable too that they had their own chi-chi avenue, closer to the main field, from which real people were excluded. But the bigger problem would have been that any innocent passer-by wandering down to avoid the diesel fumes, mass folk dancing and military kitsch would take one look at this row of wibble merchants, turn straight around and rush off home instead of exploring further.

Or maybe it worked in reverse. The public may have been in such a rush to get past without being nagged into a coma that they found themselves, unexpectedly, in new and interesting territory instead.

Because we did attract a slightly better crowd than usual, though this was due to a combination of good weather and duller than usual mainstream attractions on the “proper” fair field. This year I was kept so busy that I didn’t leave the stall in seven hours – not even long enough to peek at other stalls in our little sink estate.

I’m not complaining though. I had a productive and useful day, engaged with a lot of people, and maybe even caused some to consider a new topic. I also came home with at least a week’s supply of heavily rum-laced chocolate cake from one Jamaican food vendor and fruit pies from a more traditional Manx stall, both donated by well-wishers.

All in all then, a great day, in spite of the efforts of the professionals.