The Needle of Death

The tragic figures for drug deaths in Scotland, issued this week, should shock us out of our complacency but I don’t think they will. Already politicians have sieved the opportunity to round on the government. But who seriously believes that a labour or labour/libdem coalition, or a conservative administration, for that matter, could have made any difference?  Laying this at the feet of the SNP, who are probably doing their best  is simply unfair. Blaming the government is the easiest game in the book. The truth is that facing up to this problem is way beyond the power of any political grouping. It is a much deeper disease at the core of society and not within the gift of any politician to resolve.  All that can be done, I suspect, and all that will be done, will be a containment exercise. The issue will be moved further away from law and order and be embedded in health and safety. It will be a harm reduction measure and, while this may bring the figures to a more acceptable levels (If drug deaths are ever acceptable), it will not address the real problem.  Instead it will give a renewed push towards decriminalisation and legalisation and the culture of death will be made “safe”.

Like all almost all the serious issue of the day, the responses will fall along predictable lines, attitudes will harden and views become increasingly polarised. That’s a tragedy.  Because there is truth and real evidence in both sides.

I believe that addiction is a real phenomenon and people can be enslaved, trapped in a dependency that will drive them to the most selfish, self destructive and  appalling behaviour often involving deceit, manipulation and  sometimes real cruelty to those who love them most and who have done everything in their power to help. It is ugly and heart-breaking to watch. The terrible destruction of families and relationships by addictions is a great blight on society and the individual at the vortex seems locked in a vice unable to free themselves. I believe it, because it resonates with my understanding of the human condition. The spiritual analogy is sin, and what it does, which is why we need a Saviour.

But I also believe in free will and that at some point along the line the individual has made a deliberate choice to pursue their own pleasure and to hell with the rest. To deny the individual’s responsibility here is extremely  patronising as it deprives them of their human dignity – the ability to choose. That is why I am uneasy about treating dependence and addiction as purely health issues as it parks the issue of responsibility. One of the best gifts you might be able to give a sufferer is the hope in the belief that they can break free, if they really want to. I remember the testimony of a doctor who had worked with addicts and alcoholics over many years. He had seen all the programmes and methods for rehabilitation and come to the stark conclusion that people only recovered if they really wanted to.

If we care at all we should do everything we can to help, no matter how costly that might be.  But the person needs to really want it. They have to come to the place where they face the reality of who they are and seek the help that can only come from beyond themselves. That is the basis of the  AA and DAA programmes and why they, more than other, have been successful.

I think that we have to do the same. We have to look beyond ourselves. We have to seek help from a higher authority. We need to put our trust in a Saviour.

Na Mheoig gan Breith

The Westminster vote for Abortion in Northern Ireland, like the Irish vote last year, left me with a sick feeling in the stomach, but it was the celebrations that was the most difficult to understand . How could this be? How could there be such exuberant rejoicing over a law that would allow the taking of life. I still can’t get my head round that. People could not have been celebrating the poisoning, stabbing with a sharp tube the breaking of bones and the suction pump to destroy human life in a womb.  The facts are there and we don’t need a lot of imagination to know how horrific the “procedure” is.  I often wonder how something as awful as this has been sanitised and smoothed over so that it has become a simple aspect of contemporary life, one we simply accept, almost without question.

I remember the passing of David Steel’s bill in 1967. I knew then that it was wrong but I also knew that it was complicated and that I was pretty ignorant of the facts and not sensitive to the nuances. Over the years, I have known friends , close friends, who have had abortions. Some described the act as “handing the suffering little life into God’s care”. I have also known other couples who have defied the doctor’s advice and the mother has carried the baby for the full term only for that life to have a few hours post birth.  I also know two amazing young women who would not be alive today, and the world poorer, if the doctor’s advice was taken. One was said to be living off the other and the only hope was that the weakest be aborted in the hope that the stronger would survive. The parents with astonishing faith and resolution defied the advice of the medics to abort both lives, stuck their ground and the miracle is there to be seen. I also have many Irish friends and I often wonder if some of them are alive today simply because they were born in Ireland. Still, I cannot judge anyone and I would not, but I do know that the passing of that law then and now was an evil act. 

It was the facts that rattled me out of my complacency. I heard little of them in 1967. I don’t remember any great protest and even the church (the catholic church being the exception) was surprisingly mute. I heard a lot about the curse of “back street abortions” as the main driver behind the law. It happens anyway so legalising would make it safe. I never saw the illogical nature of that argument. If you applied it to any other social evil it would make no sense at all. Just think about it. But of how abortions were actually carried out, I remained blissfully ignorant. Why should I need to know? The pro-abortion agencies were shy on the detail too with good reason. They still sugar coat the thing as the briefest of looks at the Mary Stopes or Planned Parenthood websites will show. They don’t tell you about the sharpened tube, the breaking of bones and the suction pump and they do their utmost to avoid any suggestion that it is nothing more than a simple medical procedure. Now it is difficult to be ignorant and unaware. The facts are out there despite the attempt to stifle them. The testimonies of so many people who have had direct experience, as well as those who have survived the attempt to kill them before birth, demonstrate what a truly abominable thing we have been complicit in.

John Waters, the Irish journalist, speaking before the vote in the Republic put it bluntly:  “If this abomination passes, it will be the first time that a people have voted to strike down the rights, the fundamental human rights, of a section of their own number….It’s unprecedented in human history.”

Striking at the fundamental right of the unborn – the right to life in the name of human rights, as it was defended by politicians including our first minister, this week, makes the whole idea of human rights now quite meaningless.

Na Mheoig gan Breith – the living without birth.

The Cold Blue

A trip to our local art house cinema last night presented us with what was a very unusual film. We go regularly and sometimes the experience is shared with a mere handful of folk in a pretty empty cinema. It is often the case, after sitting through a performance, that we realise why the cinema was so empty. Last night the cinema was full, mainly with men and with more than a fair scattering of greying heads and white beards. From the beginning the audience watched in silence and rapt attention to a 72minute documentary. In fact, it was a documentary about a documentary with a documentary at the end about how the most recent one was made. Now, I am beginning to make it sound like it was watching paint dry, but it was riveting.

In 1943, William Wyler made a film about the progress of the war in Europe, following a bomber crew. This with the return and tour of the B17 bomber the “Memphis Bells”, was used as a propaganda tool to help raise moral at home back in the United States. The raw colour footage was recently discovered in a vault and  Erik Nelsen and his team painstakingly restored, remastered the material, sharpened the colour and the images and developed it for the big screen.  The original film was silent and the sound was added for this work, in a fascinating way with actual recordings of flights in similar aircraft including gunfire and flak. Over this Nelsen played the personal accounts and moving testimonies of men from the 8th Airforce now in there 80’s. Richard Thomson’s music which eventually morphed into his instantly recognisable guitar style matched the mood perfectly.

The technical aspects of the project alone were fascinating but what pinned me to my seat was the transparent honesty and warmth of these men who were willing to say something of their own personal stories caught up in the awfulness of it all. There was something transfixing about the poignant detail in their commentaries. While cockiness slipped in after the 20th mission they still knew they had a 50/50 chance of survival in the 21st.  There was something beautiful about their loyalty to their family in the “ship” and their resolution to do their duty. Over the course of the war the 8th Airforce division lost 28,000 men. On the other side 300,000 German civilians were killed and 7.5 million Germans made homeless in the final stages of the campaign when the change from target to carpet bombing was made. The placing of these harrowing facts before the viewer provides the most solemn moment of the film.

And that was the films success. It was neither filled with patriotic fervour nor disillusionment and yet it was both. Erik Nelsen with Richard Thomson’s weeping guitar just left it there. And that’s the way it should be.

“What would you say now to your 20year old self?” a veteran was asked “Don’t go” he said.

THE BLACK CAP

“Licence to Kill, Britians’ surrender to  violence” David Fraser

I remember my mother telling me how when a murderer was convicted and was about to be sentenced the judge would put on a black cap before detailing the gruesome means by which his life would be taken from him (it was most likely to be a man) and it sent a chill down my spine that I can still feel today. That was the early sixties when capital punishment was still enacted in the UK. It was abolished in 1964, temporarily at first, then permanently and finally made more secure through the adoption of the provision in the European convention of human rights in 1981. It was decision made by our representatives in parliament. The people, controversially were not allowed a vote. Public opinion seemed to have been against that decision for many years. The public mood today, however has changed and a plebiscite now is unlikely to achieve a return to “state killing”.

Despite my over vivid imagination and weak stomach, that decision troubled me at the time and does still. I was never convinced that it was right, but with the strength of emotion that it provoked, it has never been an easy subject to discuss. The idea that the state, to which I belonged, could sanction the taking of any life, doing so in my name, was utterly abhorrent. Strangely the same sympathy, somehow, was not extended to enemy combatants or civilians who were killed in war, to those yet unborn or those in a “vegetative” state. It was the taking the life of a fit viable person, who otherwise had a future, that was so appalling.  George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging” captures this emotion so grippingly especially in the way the condemned man avoids a puddle in the road on the way to his death.

So through the years, in my mind there has been this unresolved battle between the logic of just retribution and the emotional flood of sympathy for human life. To my mind, the logic of just retribution, the state taking vengeance for the individual is unrefutably.  It draws a line over the event in the sense that it has been paid for. The moors murders took place when I was only 15, and I often wondered if the murderers’ were executed then, there would be a genuine sense of public closure. As it happened, the presence of this evil was never far from the news throughout the next five decades. It also gives the victim’s family and loved ones some form of satisfaction in a sense of justice and at the same time takes away the impulse for revenge. Despite arguments to the contrary it does provide a demonstratable deterrence to would-be killers.

David Fraser in “Licence to kill”  points this out in his meticulous researched and powerful study “Licence to KillBritain’s surrender to violence”. He does not advocate a return to capital punishment, nor would I, but he does show with clear evidence and thorough research that the absence of this option has led to a steady increase in murder and not the opposite as is so often perceived.  

When it came to life sentence, I believed, as I guess most people did at the time, that it meant what it said; that the individual would lose their freedom for the rest of their life. It seemed at the time a just and fair outcome and avoided the state actually taking someone’s life.

Now we know how movers and shakers play with language often quite dishonestly to shape opinion in the way they want and make inconvenient facts more palatable. Tower blocks become “courts”,  killing innocents becomes “collateral damage”, unborn infants, “foetus”, euthanasia, “death with dignity”, but, at the time, I honestly believed that “life” meant life. But it never did it was 20 years halved for remission and here David Fraser’s exposure of the abject failure of the justice system combined with the probation service in a systemic propensity to lenient sentencing and careless early release, is devastating. Violent criminals, who knew how to work the system, were all to soon back on the streets to reignite their own brand of havoc and misery. The poor, as they inevitably do, were the ones who suffered. Meanwhile the people responsible for the leniency, the politicians, judges and probation officers were generally unaffected, living in quiet suburbs away from the urban war that was raging and able to sleep easily at night.

The issue is, of course, an ideological one.  It is whether we believe that every human being is inherently good with a propensity for doing bad things depending on environment, upbringing and circumstance or whether we believe that while individuals may be basically good there are those who are essentially evil, who given the freedom, will steal rape torture and maim at will and  who can only be restrained with proper retribution and with the fear that, if caught, they would face the most severe punishment. That’s the ideological battle and one that those in power in the UK have been winning since the sixties. Against the common sense of the people, Britain has surrendered to violence.

The Flowers of the Field

It was book I read a while back by the American novelist  Sue Miller “The story of my father”. It was not a novel and not the kind of book that I would naturally go to, but I heard her read part of it on the radio and it touched me.

Maybe it was something about the father daughter relationship, maybe it was the account of someone who was a believer by someone who wasn’t, but somehow it resonated with me and I was deeply moved. In my excitement I bought a couple of copies and gave them to friends. They didn’t share my enthusiasm and I have since learned that this emotion is not always contagious. They were unmoved by the story and critical of the authors’ motives

Sue Miller’s father died after a long period of Alzheimer’s, during which time she tried hard to hold back the inevitable break down that was taking place in his brain. Later she painfully recognised that all her efforts had no effect. What was happening to him, the fracturing of his mind, was taking its own inevitable course and nothing she could do would change that. At his memorial service she was asked to read psalm 103 which may have been a favourite of his. He was Christian pastor. She, though not herself a believer, was able to read through the beautiful words of this ancient song until she got to verse 15 where she almost choked. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field: the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”    She resolved there and then to show that her father’s life was not like that “I saw now, that my father was not as a flower of the field, dammit; there was sense, meaning to be made of his life in terms of a narrative structure, an explanation of his self – the story of my father- as told my me” She would, in the writing of this memoir, redeem his life from oblivion.

I was recalling this when talking with a client, who is also a friend, over a long car journey recently. He is a lawyer and recently retired and we were musing on reaching this stage in life and wondering what actually we had achieved. What had we got to show for a life’s labours? “At least you will have designs and buildings that will outlast you. All I did was put words together and now they are gone.” It was true I might have buildings and designs that I have had some part in creating but they too will only last for a little time. They will change, be demolished and many probably are already on the way to decay. It is true that if you are famous your name might still be known and your achievements documented, or your legacy, recorded in history. But as for you, yourself, your essential being, it will be forgotten.  People will quickly counter that your memory is retained and kept alive in your children and grandchildren if you have that privilege. The curious phrase in obituaries “He/She is survived by…” comes to mind, and there is certainly a lot of comfort sought in these words. But the fact is, it is simply not true. 

I remember my parents, I don’t think of them every day, maybe not every week but I do remember them and at times wish they were here to talk over something or just for who they were. I knew my paternal grandparents but only a little. I seldom saw them and they seemed distant and stern. I didn’t really know them. As for my great grandparents, I know nothing. I don’t actually know their names (though guess I could find out) I know nothing about what they did or who they were. So in such a short space of time, three generations, they are forgotten and in three generations I will be forgotten too. “The place will remember (me) no more” It is a desperate and despairing thought to dwell on and yet its reality cannot be denied. The fact that our life is so very brief and it will be forgotten so soon isn’t something you really want to dwell on too long.

Sue Miller was devoted to her project but when she got to the end of the story which hinged around Psalm 103, it came to her with astonishing clarity that her father didn’t need her to make sense of his life. “What I learned was that in this way, as in so many other ways, my father didn’t need me to rescue him, to make sense of his life. He accepted what was happening to him, the way he was fracturing and breaking apart, as he had accepted it in possibility well before it happened. For him his life and death already made sense. For him, Psalm 103 could be read through without irony to its conclusion, which goes as follows:

But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children, to such as keep his covenant and to those that remember his commandments to do them… Bless the Lord O my soul”

Crawford Mackenzie

IT’S THE CLIMATE STUPID


We were in the middle of a congenially post lunch conversation at our annual get together of architect buddies, having demolished the designs of local planning and building efforts moving on to Brexit and independence for Scotland. All was going swimmingly well, when we somehow wandered into global warming and climate change and I foolishly confessed to being a sceptic. The faces froze with an unconcealed shock. Suddenly I was not one of them. When people say  “ You are, of course, entitled to your point of view …” You know you have the wrong one.  I realised that I had touched on something sacred. Something that was not up for discussion. This was a religious issue and what I had said amounted to blasphemy

I was reminded of this when watching the BBC documentary  “Climate Change – the facts” which started with David Attenborough speaking from a field somewhere in England and ended with the school strikers in central London and  Greta Thunberg.  It was difficult to take any of this seriously. The hurricanes, the droughts the wildfires the dying bats and the deforestation are, without a doubt, desperately serious and devastating events, but it was the seismic jump in thinking, the incredible leap of faith that placed all these events as a direct result of human action, that was breath-taking.  There was a small admission that not all can be laid at the foot of human activity but the central message was that they did.  I wonder if the BBC team actually chose the title to put down the collection of essays of the same name which challenge the accepted view. There was no debate and no quarter given to sceptics. In fact, their intervention was seen as part of the problem. The sceptics have effectively delayed action.

The message was simple: Extreme weather is increasing, It is a result of global warming which is a result of green house gases, the principal one is CO2 which was due to carbon emissions and for which the human species is culpable. From there, the prediction was for more “extreme weather” with tipping points which will trigger “climate collapse”. Now all of that may be true, although the connections were not always clear, Among the “facts”  there was no mention of the sun which has probably the greatest influence on the changes in climate, nor clouds, their cooling effect during the day and milding effect during the night. The forests were described as soaking up the carbon without any mention of the other side.- how the trees actually need CO2 to grow and green the planet. There was no acknowledgement that the predictive models were anything other than fully trustworthy or that past predictions were wrong, some spectacularly so.

I happen to think that the destruction of the planet is a very serious issue and that our careless exploitation of resources is morally corrupt. I believe that humankind has a heavy responsibility to care for the natural world of which we are an intrinsic part. And I know we are not doing that. I take it very seriously and have done so for decades.  It was a subject we agonised over as students in the 60’s and early 70’s when pollution was how it was presented. Paul Ehrlih’s “The Population Bomb” was a text that really scared us.   What I can’t take seriously is the para-religious dogma that will not allow any discussion, that simplifies a complex subject into soundbites, that are preached in sermons often by people who have actually no special expertise, no qualification or authority in the subject and it doesn’t help the cause. The fact that the celebrity activists play fast and loose with their own carbon footprints doesn’t help either. It is the classic preacher’s sin of not practising what you preach.

But it was not just the sermon – telling us how bad we are and how we are heading for a cataclysmic disaster- It was the belief that we can find our own salvation, was what troubled me most.  It is the unconscious arrogance of the thing that lacks any sense of realism. The repeated mantra “We can save the planet” doesn’t bear any scrutiny. It is not true. We can’t.  This misplaced confidence hasn’t eradicated hunger, or poverty or disease or crime. It hasn’t brought us world peace and there is no indication that it ever will. And no, this is not a counsel of despair. It is a counsel of reality and sanity. The truth is we can’t save the planet. We can’t stop storms and hurricanes. We can’t abolish flooding or ban earthquakes. None of these things are in our gift. We can’t tell the sea to be still or the wind to be quiet. There was only one person who could do that and there is only one person who can.

And this gets to the nub of the problem, how can we expect to protect the natural world and make it a place fit for human flourishing, in harmony with the rest of creation, if we ignore the Creator and lock him out of our discussions. The problem is not climate change denial; the problem is God denial.

Losing the sense

Losing one of your senses is a very disturbing and often distressing experience. But at times it can occur so slowly and imperceptibly that you hardly even notice, until, that is, it has almost gone. One of the loses we have experienced in the public exchange of ideas is the appeal to, what we used to call, common sense. In just about every big issue that is debated today, common sense seems to have gone AWOL.

Common sense would have told us that the pre 2008 economic tigers could not be sustained and warned us of the collapse. Common sense would have told us that covering the land with concrete, cutting down the forests and piling plastic into the sea would have negative effects on our world and it could come back to bite us. Common sense would have told us that humans are different from animals, that men and women are not the same, that you can’t just decide to change from one to the other, that men can’t have babies, and that an unborn child is still a human being. Common sense would have told is that we are not just a collection of random cells. Common sense would have warned us that before you cut down the tree, you should remember how long it took to grow.  Common sense would have told us that when we empty the bath we should make sure that the baby doesn’t go down the plug hole too. Common sense also would have told us there could be exceptions but that it is best not to rip up the rule book over an exception or a hard case.

So, it is the loss of common sense that distresses me. I often come to a debate thinking “Why on earth are we even talking about this?” Time was when you could close a ridiculous argument, disengage from a pointless debate, halt the indulgence of bizarre and crazy ideas by simply appealing to common sense. Not so now. No matter how crazy or insane or outrageous the notion may seem, you have to do battle on an even field, respect the other view as if it were an equally valid opinion and argue the case from a logical evidential footing. The assumption of course is that all views are equal and should be given the same value and debated with the same rigour and even-handedness. Common sense tells you they are not.

And I wonder how this has come about. Could it be that there is no such thing as common sense? Just a vague but useful tool that has managed to smooth things over the centuries and made it work?  If that was all it ways, it would still worthwhile. But when the foundations are in question there is nothing to build on and so, with the death of truth, comes the death of common sense. If my common sense is different from your common sense, it is no longer common. Yet for any debate to be of value there needs to be some founding principles. If there isn’t, we just end up shouting at each other and this is exactly what happens.

Crawford Mackenzie