Dear Mr Johnson…

Dear Mr Johnson,

You have suffered from covid-19 – indeed, you were in intensive care and nearly died. For those days and weeks, you were in the same situation as tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Your special advisor, Dominic Cummings, was apparently in a similar position, facing a dilemma that many families throughout this country have faced.
It’s a shame neither of you learnt anything from this experience, or if you did that you hide it so well. Because according to you, Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings was entirely right to ignore the guidance that you and he helped put in place, perhaps more than once.
This guidance has caused hardship and misery to many, many people. From people who’ve been ill yet had to manage children, to others who’ve not been able to see family, to bereaved people who’ve not been able to say a final goodbye to someone they love – this guidance, these rules, have caused unimaginable hardship to many.
And yet we have willingly kept to it. Because we know, as we thought you did, how serious this is. Because we don’t want to get infected. Because we know that for these rules to work, everyone has to keep to them.
Mr Cummings clearly doesn’t believe that; he seems to believe that he can ignore those rules based on his “instincts”. And you seem to believe that he is right in this and that your need to keep him as an advisor over-rides any need to act as one of the people of this country, to show that we really are “all in this together”. If ever that phrase was true, it is utterly meaningless now.
How must people who have made huge, costly sacrifices in order to stop this disease spreading now feel, seeing what has happened, hearing you and your cabinet colleagues defend Mr Cummings? They have faced similar dilemmas with far fewer ways out, yet at incredible cost to their own health, physical and mental, and in many other ways have kept the rules. It’s hard not to think that they are better citizens than any of you.
For Mr Cummings to have made these trips is one thing. For you to not even show any understanding of why many people are upset and furious at this, for you to defend Mr Cummings without any suggestion that you think he might have done something even a little wrong is truly breath-taking. At the election in December, you won an 80-seat majority. Many people voted for you for the first time, believing they could trust you: on Brexit, yes, but implicitly on other things as well. You have shown that you do not deserve that trust, that it was utterly misplaced. You have shown what many of us believed all along: that being in power is the most important thing to you with little or no regard for the consequences of your actions to gain and hold that power. You have traded that trust just to keep hold of one advisor, an advisor you’re supposed to be the boss of. Mr Cummings will never be accountable to us, the public, but whether you like it or not you are. You may wish that this will all blow over and be forgotten about the next time we come to vote; you may be right, I sincerely hope you are wrong. Mr Cummings clearly should have been sacked or forced to resign, as other high-profile officials and advisors who have broken the lockdown rules and guidance have done. The fact that this has not happened shows you hold him in higher regard than the people of this country and all that they have given during this crisis.
Many people will now believe that you have no moral authority to enforce the lockdown rules and that if Mr Cummings can break them with impunity then why shouldn’t they. I hope they don’t, I hope that they prove themselves better than yourself and Mr Cummings and continue to act in responsible ways, recognising the mutual dependence we have on each other in order to overcome covid-19. But if they do, could you entirely blame them? Would you have the authority to blame them? All through this, I’ve felt that we have some personal responsibility as citizens: that even if the guidance or rules are unclear, we know in general what we are supposed to do. Mr Cummings’ actions, and your refusal to consider any sanction against him in spite of them, makes it clear that you don’t believe that, or that it doesn’t apply to him.
We needed a government and a Prime Minister who were effective, sympathetic and clear to guide us through this crisis, a government we could believe were on our side. Despite not voting Conservative, despite being so disappointed that you became Prime Minister and the Brexit has happened, I wanted to believe that you could rise to the occasion and lead a government with those qualities. Any hope you might have done that has been quickly eroded by the last few weeks and has been utterly destroyed by this weekend. It would be a small justice if those who happily voted Tory and rejoiced when Brexit happened changed their minds. You clearly have no particular regard for them.

Happy Birthday, SimCity!

So, SimCity, the original and classic city-building game, is 30 today! It was released on this day, 2 February 1989, on Apple Mac and Commodore Amiga, before being released later on just about any and every system going. It’s fair to say that it’s one of the most important and influential computer games ever released. And, it’s perhaps the computer game series that I’ve played and enjoyed the most over the years.

SimCity on the Commodore Amiga
SimCity on the Commodore Amiga – it looks basic now, but this was a revolution when it first came out.

My first experiences with the game were on my Amiga 600 in the early-mid 90s. I don’t remember when I first became aware of it, but I do remember getting hold of a copy from a friend and loving it. I never got very far with any of my cities because I didn’t have a blank disk to save them on and I always cheated by typing “FUND” loads of times before playing, which gave you extra cash.
But I was hooked. It’s such a cliche to say, but it was truly original and utterly unique. The freedom, the creativity and the sheer sense of power it gave you were wonderfully addicting. You weren’t tied to traditional levels, there was no Game Over (unless you ran out of money), the game wasn’t trying overtly or covertly to direct you down a particular path or towards a particular outcome – it just gave you some land, some cash, some tools and let you get on with it. You could play it ultra-seriously and try and create a proper, working, realistic city. Or you could just muck around and see what happened, often resulting in some nightmare dystopian hell-hole, just like <insert name of least favourite city here>.

It was geeky as anything, a far cry from the norm of computer and video games at the time. Even the creator, Will Wright, looked wonderfully geeky. And this distinction from what videogames were “supposed” to be about was even reflected in the story of its inception: Wright was creating a helicopter shooter for the Commodore 64 called Raid On Bungling Bay, but found he was having more fun with the level editor than the game itself. Fuelled by his growing interest in urban planning ideas, he worked on this until it grew into what became SimCity. See? Even its creation is a story of breaking free from conventions, embracing the eclectic and seemingly-uncool and making a success of it.
And perhaps that’s why it clicked for me, the uncool, awkward kid who wasn’t quite into the same stuff as everyone else (for heaven’s sake, I liked Queen who were not a popular choice for teenagers in the 90s.). It fitted me perfectly and I played it loads.

I clung on to my Amiga all through the 90s, hoping against hope that despite Commodore’s demise and the rise of PCs and the 32-bit consoles, it would stage a miraculous comeback as a platform.
Clearly this wasn’t going to happen.
So I missed out on the next two installments, SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000. A friend at uni had 2000 on his PC and I went and played it from time to time and it was clear that it had taken things to the next level: an isometric viewpoint? Water pipes? Schools? What wonderful, complicated, stunning madness was this? Seriously: this was like the holy grail of computer gaming: surely nothing could beat this! But although it came out on Amiga, it was only on the top-end Amiga 1200 and 4000 (and apparently ran like my thick porridge on both those), so I made do with the original and, occasionally, A-Train, which was good fun and kinda, sorta looked like SC2000 if you squinted a little.

SimCity 3000 on the PC
SimCity 3000 on the PC – it’s still early days for this city.

I grew up, got married in 2002 and my wife finally persuaded me it was time to ditch my Amiga and embrace the ways of the PC. And though I was sad to see my Miggy go, when we got a decent Windows XP PC I did enjoy it (say it quietly). And SimCity made an appearance on my PC: I got hold of a copy of 3000 in a strategy games compilation and if memory serves it’s the only game out of it I consistently played.
SC3000 was and still is a great iteration of the series. While there hadn’t been massive developments in the gameplay, the graphics had been seriously improved; now it looked cartoon-y and fun and happy. A newsticker replaced the wonderfully bizarre newspapers that 2000 had used to keep you up to date with happenings in your city: and it was equally mad, amusing and helpful. I played this a lot, and was unable to help myself when SimCity 4 came out, especially when it was on special offer with its expansion pack: I had to get it.

SimCity 4 might appear to be the most difficult of the series: it’s complicated, it’s a lot less “cartoony and fun” than 3000, there’s huge depth to it and it needed a fairly decent PC at the time to run it. But for me, this has always been the most involving and time-consuming installment of the series. There’s something about that depth that sucks me in: I can lose hours to any version of the game, but especially to SC4.
What made this even more so was the all-new regional play. Ever since 2000, there’d always been neighbouring cities in SimCity games, but all they’d really been were ways for you to buy and sell excess water, power and garbage. Now in SC4, you could play those cities. You weren’t just mayor of one city: you were boss of the entire region. You founded those extra cities, linked them up with your starter city, signed the deals and shaped them to make one living, breathing region. The scale of it was mind-boggling, the opportunities it presented immense. For some it was too much; but for me, it was the game I spent the most time with ever.
And the modding scene only added to that. Seriously, go look at the Simtropolis website; the community for this game was and still is immense. There are houses, shops, factories, parks, replacement power stations – right up to mods that replace the entire traffic system in the game. More than 15 years after its release, SC4 is still going strong for many people.

SimCity 4 on the PC
Suburban sprawl in SimCity 4

Hmmm… there’s a lot more to say on this – the story of SimCity post number 4. But I’ve typed a lot of that already and it’s huge. So we’ll leave it there for this post, with the slow-burn success that was SimCity 4.
But if you’ve never played a SimCity game, try and find a way to do so. The games from 2000 to 4 can be bought quite easily on various digital game shops and it’s not hard to find CD versions on ebay etc. So you’ve no excuse to lose yourself in a thoroughly geeky, but wonderfully addictive and freeing computer game experience. And if you want another, very personal account, of how special the original SimCity was, then watch LGR’s fabulous 30th anniversary tribute to the game.
Happy 30th birthday, SimCity!

Anxiety is…

So it’s six months today since I finally went to the doctors with what turned out to be an anxiety disorder – something I’d been wrestling with, it turns out, for a very, very long time. I never intended for this blog to become an “anxiety blog”; nor is this supposed to be the definitive statement on what anxiety is for everyone who suffers and struggles with it. This is just something I had to write for me: to get off my chest and put into words something of what this has been like for me, what anxiety is in my life and experience.

Anxiety is replaying every conversation, comment and social interaction in the worry that you said something that was taken as offensive, rude or upsetting.

Anxiety is your mind going blank when talking with others, literally being unable to think of anything to say – then being afraid of the silence.

Anxiety is wanting to be part of the conversation or the party, but not knowing how and being afraid of it. Then feeling left out.

Anxiety is not wanting to talk, even to someone close to you, because you just can’t handle conversation today. So you just keep walking (apologies if I’ve ever done that to you – I wasn’t being rude, honest!).

Anxiety is playing up even the smallest obstacle into something huge and either impossibly difficult or terrifying.

Anxiety is the constant worry you’ve let someone down. Or the nagging feeling you’ve done something wrong.

Anxiety is being unable to do anything apart from waste time, because every choice either seems bad or risks missing out on something else.

Anxiety is when you don’t want to be thinking what you’re thinking, but can’t stop and end up just making it worse.

Anxiety is when the noise – just the ordinary, family noise, nothing out-of-the-ordinary – gets almost overwhelming and you just want to be somewhere silent.

Anxiety is the constant thought that they’re laughing at you, or suspicious of you, or think you’re an idiot or whatever – with no justification whatsoever.

Anxiety is what I’m struggling with, wrestling with – but chipping away at. Anxiety is what I may never be cured from, but what I will never be overcome by either.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you” – 1 Peter 5:7, The Bible. I will try, keep trying, to do just that.

Bicycle Race (Mercury) and Fat Bottomed Girls (May)

When I first began the predecessor to this blog (which you can read here), for some reason I decided to do a “review” of every one of Queen’s UK singles. I haven’t written one since April 2008, so it’s probably past time to carry on with them. They’re not really proper reviews, more my own musings on the songs hopefully written in a vaguely interesting style. So here we go…

By 1978, Queen were becoming huge – massive audiences, huge record sales, and increasing wealth (after several years of earning surprisingly little, despite their success). And their success was showing in other ways: this was the time when the wild partying and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles really began – the over-the-top-ness of their records spilling over into their real lives. Queen also became tax exiles in this year, spending the maximum time possible in the UK before they became liable for higher rates of tax (this was the period when they discovered, and bought, the Mountain Studios in Montreux; studios that would play a hugely important part in their career, not least in the years leading up to Freddie’s death).

And this outrageousness shows in their album of that year, Jazz. To be frank, it’s a bit bonkers. Not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just somewhat off the rails, taking their experiments in genres outside of rock to the limits including Freddie’s quasi-Islamic sounds in Mustafa. This is the album that gives a home to Don’t Stop Me Now, which tells you pretty much all you need to know.

And then we get to these two songs, released as a double A-side. Fat Bottomed Girls is probably the most straightforward: a pretty much by-the-numbers Brian May rocker, with healthy amounts of guitar, harmonies and Freddie’s hardest rock voice. Oh, and a pretty good breakneck drum solo from Roger Taylor.

What’s it about? Sex, apparently. May has apparently said that he and Mercury were exchanging knowing glances and grins as they went through the song. Lines like “I was just a skinny lad” and “heap-big woman, you made a bad boy out of me” add a somewhat sordid tone to the whole thing, perhaps reflecting the band’s increasing, er, extra-curricular activities outside of the studio (and perhaps inside as well – who knows?).

(On the album version, which is substantially longer than the single mix, there’s a weird bit of production, where May’s guitar only comes through one side of the mix for the first few seconds. Is this deliberate? Or did Queen, reunited with Roy Thomas Baker, simply overlook it?)

I probably sound like a bit of a prude – probably I am. The song, especially the chorus, is as catchy as hell and no doubt the group would want it to be heard with a knowing wink. But it’s hard not to ignore the subtext.

If the album as a whole is a bit bonkers, then Bicycle Race is the point when it gives up on all pretences of sanity. In less than 3 minutes it passes through numerous key changes, time signature changes and gives us perhaps the first ever bicycle bell solo in a top 40 record (unless anyone knows otherwise). And those “Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle”s just keep crashing in, in case we weren’t sure.

Meanwhile, Freddie proclaims his dislike of Jaws and Star Wars, his disbelief in Superman, Frankenstein and Peter Pan and his reluctance to become President of the USA. All he wants to do is “bicycle, bicycle, bicycle” (apparently, however, Freddie’s fascination with said mode of transport is less to do with bicycles and more to do with someone who was riding one as the Tour De France went by). And who are we to stop him?

These two songs, along with Don’t Stop Me Now, capture the excess of this period of Queen’s career perfectly. They’re rough round the edges compared with the perfect production of most of the groups earlier songs, bawdy and quite, quite bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you.

Videos: Let’s start with the straightforward one. Fat Bottomed Girls is another performance video of the group. Or rather, it’s a video of Freddie singing with occasional glimpses of some other guys playing instruments. Listen to the commentary on the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD to hear Brian and Roger’s understandable complaints about this.

And Bicycle Race… Someone (Freddie?) decided that what this song needed was a bunch of naked models riding around on bikes. So that’s what they filmed. Clearly EMI weren’t going to be happy releasing that as a video, so they made a second version with the offending shots of the models overlaid with obscuring video effects, interspersed with random shots of people on bikes and cartoons of Superman et al. The “clean” version was released on the Greatest Flixton VHS release, the original on the Greatest Video Hits DVD. Both of them are available on YouTube, though for some reason the first one is easier to find…

Oh, and Raleigh refused to accept the bikes back afterwards.

A Brexit non-rant

So nearly two years ago (was it really that long?!) I went off on one about Brexit. And I still feel pretty much as I did then: that Brexit is a terrible mistake that will hurt this country hard and that the whole process from the referendum onwards has been handled catastrophically by most of the politicians involved in it.

But (and this “but” is going to go on a long time, so get a nice hot drink and settle yourselves down somewhere comfy).

There’s something else that’s equally, if not more, dangerous than just the financial and other implications of leaving the EU. Which is that during this whole Brexit palaver, we’ve lost some crucially important things: more than just our place in the EU, more than just whatever economic losses we may/will suffer as a result of that.

I think we’ve lost the ability to listen to others with a different view. This may just be me spending too much time on Twitter and the Guardian’s comments section, neither of which are hotbeds of calm, rational, well-thought out debate and discussion. But so much of what passes for debate in this is two sides shouting at each other, two sides who think they know what the other side is saying and responds according to that, not necessarily according to what they’re actually saying. Labels are flung at each other (“Remoaner”, “Brexiteer”, “traitor”, “racist”, “elitist” etc.) with wild abandon as if to do so immediately nullifies the other side’s arguments.
But no one’s listening to anyone else in the heat of these debates. None (or very few) of the remainers are trying to hear and understand why people voted Brexit. And none (or very few) who voted for Brexit are trying to understand why so many of us who voted Remain are so upset about what’s happening and would want to stop it.

There was an article in the Guardian before Christmas which addressed some of this. It was commenting in part on how the film It’s A Wonderful Life might have some lessons for us in these polarised times, about the virtues of not being self-righteous, so certain of your own views that you refuse to listen to others. And it also referenced a Twitter thread by the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce on why walked out of a Dylan Moran gig after jokes the latter made against people who voted against Brexit. The article’s point was basically that these binary divisions between Leave-Remain are simply unsustainable and damaging to the country. Predictably, the comments were full of the same old arguments about Brexit and, I’m slightly ashamed to say, Remainers making the same old “bigot”, “racist”, “stupid” comments about Leave voters. Very few of them were willing to take any step towards any sort of reconciliation with the other side.

(Stephen Colbert, the US comedian and late-night host, made a similar point in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in this video.)

The thing is, though, assuming Brexit happens, we are going to have to live together in whatever arrangement this country ends up in; there’s no way around that. And at the risk of sounding overly-simplistic, or like a politician vainly appealing for unity after spending years promoting division, we’re sooner or later going to have to somehow work out how to do that together, if only to try and make the best of a catastrophic job. And name-calling, self-righteousness and all the rest of it are only going to make that infinitely harder. Or, to put it another way: we Remainers may be proved right, but we’ll suffer for it as much as those who voted leave.

There’s something else we’ve lost as well, or at least badly messed up. I mentioned above both sides not listening to the other side, as if even to acknowledge any concerns, however wrong they may be, is to somehow give them a validity we believe they don’t deserve.
The flip side of this is the argument that if we don’t leave the EU, then the wishes of the majority (or that poisonous, incorrect phrase “the will of the people”) have been ignored; they haven’t been listened to because what they said hasn’t been carried out – even if no one can define what has been said.

But the referendum result hasn’t been ignored. The government has spent the last two and a half years trying, very badly, to implement the result. To listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to do what they say all the time. One can listen, but disagree or set out your reasons why you’re not going to do why they asked.
And to listen to someone who’s views you profoundly disagree with isn’t to necessarily say, “actually you’re right” as many Remainers seem to fear. Better listening, actually more respectful listening, might actually be to hear and understand the other’s point of view, and then explain why you disagree, why you believe them to be wrong. To take one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote: you can listen to someone’s views on the apparent dangers of immigration and still disagree with them, try and explain why you think they’re wrong.
But in the current climate, to do that is either to give something a dignity it doesn’t deserve or, from the other point of view, to ignore what they’re saying – even if you’ve spent time carefully listening to them.

What’s the way out of this? I don’t know. One frequent comment on that Guardian article that had validity was that it’d be a help if politicians did that.
But perhaps we can’t leave it to them; as the late, great Simon Hoggart pointed out, most politicians’ horror at “politicising” a terrible disaster or such like is mainly because they didn’t think to do it first; it’s almost in their very nature (a few honourable exceptions aside).
No, I think ordinary folks are going to have to do this. Perhaps they/we are: if you know where this is happening then please let me know in the comments! But sooner or later, someone’s going to have to let down their defences, take a step out of their self-righteous bubble and listen to and acknowledge the other side’s view, however wrong they believe that view to be. Because the alternative is that the divisions keep growing and growing until we reach a very dangerous place – if we’re not there already.

As Stephen Colbert put it, we’re in danger of overdosing on politics in a very unhealthy way – and it’s poisoning us.

(And if you are going to comment – keep it civil!)

On backlogs, indecision and anxiety

I have a number of backlogs: piles of things I have bought with the intention of reading, watching, playing, listening to and not got round to yet.

My video games backlog, most of which is stored digitally on my PC and XBox One (although it also spans several of the consoles I’ve acquired over the years) must be around about the 100 mark – although that’s not that big compared to some people’s.

My film/TV show backlog encompasses many DVDs, box sets and a few things on Amazon Prime.

And books! I have shelves and piles of books, all waiting to be read.

So why don’t I play/watch/read them? And why buy more of these things when I haven’t finished the ones I’ve got?

Those are really interesting questions – really, really interesting questions…

Wish I knew the answers.

Part of it is (confession time) impulse buying. Part of it is the fear that if you don’t buy it someone else will, or if it’s on sale that the price reduction will end. These are not good reasons.

But I think there’s something else. I am horribly indecisive, terribly so (probably – sorry, couldn’t resist). So when I have some time to watch something or play a game, I spend so much time just trying to decide what to watch or play. Endless scrolling up and down game lists or combing DVD shelves for that one right choice, the one that will bring me the satisfaction that I seek.

The truth is, there is no “one right choice”. And when the truth of that hits home, I will tend to go into my comfort zone – either playing a game I always play or wasting time watching YouTube videos, both of which leave me feeling frustrated and empty, like ending up eating plain toast for breakfast because you couldn’t choose between all the nice things.

I put anxiety in the title of this post because part of me wonders if my anxiety has something to do with this or not. It can make me feel anxious, certainly, having what is essentially too much choice. And I think what makes it worse is the worry of what I’m missing out on by making a choice: if I play this game, I’ll miss out on that game. But then I end up missing out on both!

And that’s one of the many troubles with this anxiety: you end up putting yourself in a no-win situation. You expend so much energy in looking for the perfect solution when there isn’t one. And when you finally realise that there isn’t one and you’ve wasted so much time just to end up in your comfort zone, missing out on the pleasure you could’ve had – the frustration grows deeper.

So then you buy more stuff because this time it will be the one that will be that one right choice – and of course it isn’t, and it just ends up on the backlog.

Fun, eh?

So what’s the answer? Still not sure I know. Probably, hopefully, to try and shut down that anxious part of my brain that says “but what about this” every time I want to enjoy myself. To try and focus on what I’ve chosen to do, rather than worry about the thing I’m not doing.

For some, no doubt, that’s easy. For me – not so much. But I will keep at it, keep trying to enjoy and find fulfilment in what I’m doing in the here and now. And maybe, maybe, the backlogs will start coming down.

New year, new habits, new blog posts?

Happy 2019! Let’s hope we can still say that in a few months’ time… (cheerful start, huh?).

So I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, largely because like 99% of people, I’m rubbish at keeping them. (There’s a good blog post about this here.) But there are some things I would like to try and do, perhaps some good habits I’d like to try and develop, without beating myself up. I might write about them later.

But one of them is that I’d like to get better at writing this blog, if only because there’s no point in having a blog if you’re going to update it; it’s also a way of getting some of the stuff in my head out of my head. So without making any cast-iron promises, I will try (try) and update this daily if possible.

Cue cheers and rapturous applause.

Ah well.

I’ve dug out my rather ratty Bluetooth keyboard and everything so I can write from my iPad without having to use the on-screen keyboard.

The inevitable Brexit post…

Hello, it’s been a little while…

So, this is it. Theresa May has signed the letter, and the two years of negotiations to take the UK out of the European Union begin.

The UK is leaving the European Union.

The UK is leaving the EU.

I still can’t quite get my head around that sentence. It just seems weird (as well as catastrophically wrong). We’ve been part of the EEC/EU all my life, it’s just been normal to me that that’s how things have been. It’s not been a bad thing, I can’t think of any time when I’ve thought “damn you, EU” and shook an angry fist in the vague direction of Brussels. To think that in two years’ time that won’t be the case just seems strange.

But leave we will, assuming that the negotiations don’t go pear-shaped and we end up not leaving (well, a man can dream, can’t he?). And if Theresa May and the right wing of the Conservative party get their way, it will be a hard, non-Single Market Brexit.

I actually, genuinely don’t understand it.

I don’t understand why David Cameron called the referendum in the first place. Sure, if you asked people if they wanted a referendum, they answered “yes”. But my understanding is that when people ranked how important EU membership was to them, it never ranked as a particularly important issue. Essentially, then, we’ve been railroaded into this by a few people for whom leaving the EU was an obession. Cameron appears to have been frightened by them and so called the referendum.

Which he lost. And then ran away from. And Mrs May took over. And that’s where things get interesting, and more than a little depressing…

The aftermath of the Referendum

Now we get to the part that makes me even more puzzled and, if I’m honest, slightly sad and angry about: what happened between the referendum result and the triggering of Article 50 that happened today.

The result of the referendum was close: 52-48. This was by no means an overwhelming majority in favour of Brexit; this was a close call.

But somehow, this got taken up by those most in favour of Brexit and labelled “the will of the people”, as if this was a unanimous, or near-unanimous, vote in favour of leaving. It wasn’t; nowhere near it.

But the loudest Brexit voices were the ones that prevailed. Only the bald fact that Leave won the referendum mattered. That 48% who voted against – over 16 million people – didn’t count. The people had spoken, the narrative went, with one voice: we want out.

Now, you might think given the closeness of the vote, that a wise and sensible government would tread cautiously. The outcome of the vote, and the sheer divisiveness of the campaign, showed a country that was deeply split, almost down the middle. Surely, in these circumstances, the best thing to do was for Mrs May and the government to seek consensus, to move slowly, to try and work to bring on board those of us who had voted Remain. There would no doubt be some, perhapd many, who would refuse. But that was no reason not try. If Mrs May was serious about the “Unionist” part of the “Conservative and Unionist” party she boasted she belonged to in her speech on taking up office, surely reaching out to Remain-voters, seeking to include them and their wishes and preferences in what came next would’ve gone a long way to healing some of those deep divisions.

In a similar way, Mrs May could’ve respected the fact that Scotland voted Remain and worked closely with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government to find a way of dealing with Brexit that could have accommodated them. This was surely especially important, given the fact that the SNP would surely be looking to use the Brexit vote as a trigger for a second referendum (which, of course, they did; and while I fervently hope Scotland stays in the UK, I can’t say I blame them).

And in dealing with the EU post-referendum, surely seeking to maintain the best possible relations with the 27 countries with whom we’ll have to negotiate was the best way forward. The message to Brussels and those 27 countries should surely have been, “While we intend to enact the result of the referendum, we recognise it is vital for the UK and the EU to come to the best possible agreement to allow us both to flourish after Brexit. We therefore intend to work closely with our partners and friends in the EU to ensure that what emerges from the Article 50 negotiations will be as mutually beneficial to us all as possible, allowing us to continue to work closely together post-Brexit”. Or even just, “sorry! It’s not you, it’s us”.

But, no.

Brexit became “the will of the people”, as noted above. Ardent hard-Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, were appointed to the cabinet in key positions. Theresa May tried to ignore her previous pro-Remain sentiment and made hard Brexit her priority: “Brexit means Brexit”, apparently. She needlessly sidelined and antagonised Scotland and paid little or no attention to Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party conference that autumn at times represented a giant two fingers stuck up at the rest of the EU. No one in the government showed any appreciation of the deep divisions in the country, or the effects that rushing headlong into a hard Brexit would have on Scotland and the rest of the EU.

Labour’s response

Surely Labour could be relied on to stop this? I mean, they campaigned in favour of remaining, didn’t they?

Sigh.

No, they didn’t. Jeremy Corbyn wanted to be nuanced and to show himself as anything but an uncritical supporter of the EU (especially given his previous anti-EU stance). But he just came across as lukewarm and not caring. While arguments still rage about how effectively he campaigned (and the point is well made that Labour voters voted largely in favour of Remain – a point we’ll come on to shortly), it has to be said he helped contribute to a sense that the pro-Remain campaign was half-hearted and more interested in poiting out the dangers of leaving the EU, rather than positively making the case for staying in.

Then Corbyn appeared to call for Article 50 to be triggered now, and praised Gisela Stuart for her role in leading the Leave campaign. Really? What kind of message does that send to Labour MPs and members who campaigned for Remain, as they thought their leader was, and who were left devastated by the result?

Then came the Parliamentary bill to trigger Article 50. And we must pause here and consider the supreme irony of Brexiteers who had campaigned for the UK Parliament to be sovereign once more (which it was anyway), opposing one measure that would ensure that sovereignty was a reality.

But back to Labour. They put up all sorts of amendments designed to protect the rights of EU citizens still living here, ensure that Parliament got a say on the final deal etc. They were all rejected. So, having seen these presuambly crucial amendments voted down, did Labour vote against the bill on the grounds that, while they respected the result of the referendum, to support Brexit in this way would go against what the party believed to be important?

They did not. They were whipped into voting in favour of the bill.

I cannot believe the immense stupidity of this decision. Still. Labour was cowed by that “will of the people” line, forgetting that 48% of the vote was for remaining; forgetting that between 60-70% of their own supporters had voted Remain – and were now effectively unrepresented by their own party. Theresa May now had and has a free hand. Corbyn and Labour have said “the fight starts now” (ha!) and of the tests that the eventual deal must pass in order for them to accept it.

But it’s too late. It’s. Too. Late. They’ve given May and the hard Brexiteers a free hand. How can they oppose it now? In voting in favour of Article 50, even without those amendments, they’ve effectively said “go ahead, Theresa, do what you will”. If they raise a squeak of protest, or try to vote against, they’ll be laughed at: “why didn’t you vote against Article 50 in the first place” is the obvious retort, “it’s too late now”.

Corbyn blew it. Big time.

Wither Remainers?

So, effectively, the 48% – 48%, a huge percentage – who support Remain are unrepresented. The Lib Dems, always a pro-EU party, are making a lot of noise and rightly so; the Greens are pro-EU. But aside from them and the SNP’s MPs, that’s still considerably less than 100 MPs giving any voice to the concerns of those who voted Remain. In a democracy (which doesn’t mean “winner takes all”, despite what many Brexiters seem to think), for 48% of those who voted to be effectively told, “sorry, you lost” is unthinkable.

There are two messages that have been directed at Remainers who dare to speak against what’s happening. One is, “You lost, get over it”: as if the fact we lost one vote means we should shut up forever (because when one party loses a general election, they just nod everything the new government does through… oh wait: they don’t!). The other is something along the lines of, “we need to pull together, put aside our differences, and all work together to make Brexit work.”

Well, sorry, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t spend nine months rubbishing 48% of the electorate, telling us we’re “Remoaners”, traitors, unpatriotic, that our votes don’t count… and then suddenly expect us to forget it all and come on board with something we profoundly disagree with. If you’d wanted us to be on board, you should’ve respected us, listened to us, worked to understand why we voted the way we did (48% =/= a “liberal, metropolitan elite”) and try and include our deep, deep concerns in formulating your Brexit plans.

UKIP (grrr…)

Of course, the bogey-man (or party) in this are UKIP, who have gained a power and influence on Brexit and the British political scene far beyond their support in the country. Until the weekend, they only had one MP. Their figurehead (even if he’s not their leader any more) has never won a UK parliamentary election. And yet the Tories and Labour act as if UKIP have this vast power to destroy them. Every action the two main parties have taken since the referendum has been with at least one eye on UKIP in general and Nigel Farage in particular. It’s been utterly astonishing to see the two parties work in such utter fear of such a small political party, simply because their former leader is good at pretending to speak for the ordinary people of the UK.

And if I say any more about UKIP, I might say something I’ll regret…

So I’ll leave it at that. This isn’t a systematic analysis of why we’ve come to this point, it’s not an unbiased account: I want us to stay in the EU and I hope beyond hope that something will happen in the next 2 years that will make that inevitable. It’s a part-rant, part-expression of utter disbelief at what has happened and the incredible (in the literal sense of that word) decisions, mis-steps and mistakes that have been taken since the referendum.

Thank you for reading it.

Baptist Assembly 2012

There’s already been quite a bit of blogging about the Baptist Assembly in London, which finished on Sunday.  For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts about it.  If these make no sense whatsoever, then please bear in mind they’ve been dulled by the long drive back from London yesterday, extreme tiredness from all the walking in London I did, and the cold I appear to have picked up from my wife (we have a very sharing marriage!).  So please forgive me if the following is utter rubbish!

I came away from the closing celebration with mixed feelings.  Lots of people came away with smiles on their faces and had obviously found it to be a significant, faith-affirming and celebratory weekend; indeed, Jonathan Edwards said as much in his remarks at the end of the weekend.  And there was much to celebrate: 400 years of Baptist history in the UK – what better reason to celebrate than that?

Yet this didn’t quite work, at least not for me.  Partly this was because we didn’t actually mention our history very much, aside from the (very good) video clip at the start of each evening session.  I know, I know the point was “Beyond 400″, that this was as much about looking ahead to where God might be leading us now than back and where God has led us in the past.  But still it might have been good to have had some efforts, within the “all together” bits in the evenings, to have engaged with this?

And this “Beyond 400” focus raises another point for me.  The future at the moment for BUGB is unclear: not, as Malcolm Broad reassured us in the Sunday afternoon discussion, that the whole thing is about to come collapsing around our ears, but that we do face significant financial difficulties and bigger issues that these raise.  Yet, aside from the Sunday afternoon debate (of which more later) there wasn’t a whole lot of engagement with this.  We had rallying cries from Tony Campolo and Agu Irukwu on Saturday and Sunday respectively.  But where were the voices speaking directly into our situation?  Where were the addresses addressing the problems we face, from people (whether inside or outside the denomination) who were familiar with our situation and could bring a word from God about it?  To have any real talk about the future limited to a 2 1/2 hour debate on Sunday afternoon (when people are tired and many were surely beginning to prepare themselves for the long journey home) felt like a wasted opportunity.

That said, I found that debate one of the best bits of the weekend and was really grateful that time was found to include it.  It was good to hear people’s voices about the process so far, those who were supporting it and those who had concerns or real, painful issues to raise with it.  The debate was well-chaired by Chris Ellis, especially when he decided to allow one person to run over time when she spoke movingly of the pain many black and ethnic-minority Baptists are feeling with the process so far.  Jonathan Edwards said he wanted the process and eventual outcome to be inclusive of all, but little more than that – these words now have to be turned into action.  The debate was worth having but it needed more time!  If people were hearing these things for the first time (and I accept Phil Jump and Rowena Wilding’s points about ministers’ lack of passing on information completely) then they needed time to digest and process it.

The main innovation towards this goal, the Saturday conferences, were a good idea.  I went to Chris Duffet’s “Pass it on” session about mission, which was interesting and challenging.  It was good to have the time to explore the issue more fully, rather than just a short session that stops just as it’s getting interesting, so more of this, please!  Also, Chris embodied his idea of the “Big-Hearted God” so well in his wonderfully generous and enthusiastic responses to people’s questions and comments and ideas.  The examples of mission we heard about were inspiring and challenging (that word again!)… but, as well as the fantastically innovative projects that we do need to hear about, it would be nice if the “ordinary” churches taking their first steps in mission were given centre stage as well as these exciting new projects.

The worship… well, I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that the “Sing lots of choruses together, and repeated” model isn’t my cup of tea – I’ve known this for a long time and it really hit home this year.  So it’s a shame that, Communion aside, this was the only form of sung worship we had during the whole weekend.  I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been there at all – but is it not possible to have some more variety, especially when there was no “Prism” or similar?  It just felt like there was no variety at all, that many of the songs we sung sounded the same (I’m beginning to sound old now!!) and there were few spaces for silence, reflection, corporate prayer amongst it all.  And in a collective event of Baptists from around the country, the fact that nearly every song was an “I/me” not an “us/we” song was unfortunate. This sort of thing seems to thrive on everyone feeling and expressing a particular emotion, and if that’s not how you “work” (and it isn’t for me) then you can feel left out, or like you’re doing something wrong.

The communion service was different and much the better for it.  Aradhna, who led the music, were excellent.  The theme that connected much of it, hands, was very worked in providing many different ways of praying and worshipping.  Jane Day’s sermon was the best talk of the weekend: much less rabble-rousing, but reflective, working with the Bible passage and connecting with the theme of the Assembly and the situation of BUGB.

Chris Duffet’s presidential address was warm-hearted and generous, hopefully encouraging and challenging us to be more evangelistic as churches and Christians.  It was best when he felt able to stop looking at his cue cards and simply speak what was on his heart and mind and I wished he’d done it more often!  As for the other two address, I’m not sure.  Neither of them, as Andy Goodliff points out, engaged in any way with the texts from Hebrews that were read just before.  There were some good one-liners and some serious points in Tony Campolo’s address, but… it was clear he didn’t have much of a handle on the context for the Assembly (mixing up BUGB and BMS) and so failed to address these points in the most superficial of ways.  This made the decision to allow him to to contribute to Sunday afternoon’s debate baffling: he got some good cheers, especially when he talked about how mission was so much more important than the structure (yes, but that matters too) and how BUGB and BMS should simply merge, as if that was the easiest thing in the world.  But I didn’t think he had much that was of huge value to say, nothing that provided a keen insight into the debate.

Pastor Agu’s closing address was thought-provoking in some ways, but seemed to rely on stereotypes of the “secularisation debate” that has been going on (as far as I’m aware, prayers haven’t been banned in Parliament, and given how often the Coalition government speaks of the importance of Christianity to this country, to accuse them of being anti-Christianity, something that I keep hearing, was just bizarre).  Again, though, I didn’t feel like he said much that was specific to our situation as BUGB, he almost ignored the Bible text (Hebrews 12) and the theme of “Beyond 400”.  An address by Jonathan Edwards might have been much more necessary.

And so it was the strange mix of the superficial (the worship in the evening sessions, two of the addresses) and the much deeper (the Day Conferences and the Futures Debate) that left me with mixed feelings.  I felt much more drawn to the latter, which seemed to explore faithfully and openly the problems ahead of us and which allowed us to contribute, than the former, which seemed to skate over the issues with a “Trust in God – He is faithful”: yes He is and yes we should, but that’s easier said than done and doesn’t do away with the difficult questions that maybe God is asking us as Baptists.  At this important, vital moment for Baptists in BUGB, I think we do need to stop and think and to have space made available for us.  Perhaps combining the AGMs with the Futures Debate and allowing these to take up the bulk of Sunday, finishing with the Communion service, might have been better (though I appreciate the practical problems this would’ve raised with Methodist Central Hall’s regular Sunday service – could we borrow Parliament, it’s only across the road!).  Perhaps we need to sacrifice some of the “feel-good” worship, not to wallow in self-pity or to deny that we need to worship and celebrate God even in the hard times, but that we need to take those times seriously.  There were hints of something different and better within the Assembly – let’s build on those and maybe something good and profound will emerge.

(Oh and finally, finally, thanks to everyone who organised it and made it happen!)

Lenten Blogging – day 2

(In case you’re wondering how day 1 and day 2 can appear on the same day, I’ve not gone mad (or at least not for that reason), nor have I fallen into a TARDIS.  Day 1 should’ve appeared yesterday but, er, didn’t.  So hopefully after this we’ll be back up to date and on track and everybody will be happy.  Or something like that…).

Today’s passage is Mark 1:21-45, with a specific focus on vv21-28.  I’ve recently been preaching on these passages as they’ve been the Lectionary passages, so much of this has probably been blatantly cribbed from those sermons.

(SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: You can read more about these on my Greenfield Minister’s blog – please go and have a look!)

Anyway, the passage that Tom Wright suggests we particularly focus on is Jesus’ awesome demonstrations of His authority, both in His written teaching and His driving out of the evil spirit in the Temple in Capernaum.  By the end of all that, the crowds’ jaws are on the ground: “What is this?  It’s like nothing we’ve seen before!!  Incredible!”  And it’s Jesus authority that has them eyes wide open, mouths agog, babbling like our one year old.

Which can seem odd to us.  Authority can be a bit of a dirty word.  We don’t like being told what to do.  “The Authorities” are, in many people’s eyes, not to be trusted, sticking their nose in where it’s not wanted at the best of times.  At the worst of times, “the Authorities” are the governments of countries like Syria, using sheer brute, murderous, blood-shedding force to try and impose their will.  Authority down the barrel of a gun, with no regards for the people they’re supposed to be protecting.

Authority sucks, apparently.  And it’s not just teenagers who think that.

But here, authority doesn’t suck.  I doubt the people of Capernaum liked being bossed around any more than anyone else does.  Yet they’re amazed at Jesus’ authority!  It seems to put Him much higher in their estimations than the religious teachers who’ve gone before.

Huh?  What gives?

Firstly, of course, there’s something unique about Jesus’ authority in His teaching.  It’s authentic, it’s real.  It surely comes from His unique relationship with His Father.  And perhaps it touched the people in ways they’d not known before, in ways that even the wisest, most learned, most pastorally-hearted teacher could not touch them.

But not just that.  Jesus’ authority here brings freedom.  Jesus most dramatically displays His authority over the evil spirit that’s possessing the man who interrupts so violently Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus is “stern” the NIV says, in His dealings with the spirit.  He silences it, then orders it to come out.  You can imagine how dramatic that coming out must have been, how frightening for the people watching it.

Yet it worked.  The spirit did come out.  The man was free – free at last!  Jesus spoke and set this man free from what had been possessing and controlling Him for all that time!  You can imagine the slow dawn of realisation on his face, then the look of speechless gratitude to Jesus, before he dashes out in excitement and wonder, almost not knowing what to do with himself now that he can do something with himself and for himself.

Jesus’ authority here doesn’t put down the man, doesn’t seek to control him.  In fact, those are the very things Jesus frees him from.  Jesus’ authority is exercised over all those things that control this man, that over-ride his own hopes and dreams and desires.  Jesus’ authority sets him free.

Too often, religion is seen as controlling,  Us religious leaders are seen as people who want to tell others what to do, how to live and so on.  We’re seen as people on a power trip, insecurely working out our need to control and manipulate others.  Jesus shows a different way: authority that liberates, that sets free, that allows people to become all they want to be.  Authority that is as far as it’s possible to get from the dictators and authoritarian leaders of our world, secular or sacred.

What controls us?  What stops us from being all that God wants us to be?  What comes disguised as freedom, but is in fact killing us as it takes control of our lives?  Doesn’t have to be “dramatic” – almost anything can have that power over us.  Whatever it is, Jesus longs to free us from it, longs to show His power and authority to bring true freedom and true life.