The Hierarchy of Grief and Care


There exists, within the hallowed shelves of the library kept by The Elders of the Internet (ref. The I.T. Crowd), a list that details the Hierarchy of Grief and Care. This list is hard to come by, and you only find out who owns a copy when you publicly express concern for anything via the Internet.

Rest assured, whatever you care for, and how ever you express your grief, you will fall foul of correct procedure as outlined in The List. Perhaps your Grandmother dies on the same day that someone younger and more noteworthy passes on, therefore your tears at her death at the age of 90 will be considered a selfish extravagance, considering what a good innings she had compared to other dead people who didn’t get to have nearly so long on the Earth, and are therefore more deserving of sadness than your Grandmother who lived in a big house anyway, and whose only worry was the ache in her wrist when she spent too long over The Times’ crossword.

The thing is, I’m not sure all the people in possession of The List are working from the same copy. Maybe the updates aren’t distributed regularly enough, or maybe there are different factions among The Elders of the Internet all of whom have different versions of The List, because I’ve noticed that the wrongness of your grief and care varies quite considerably. It is always wrong, but sometimes it’s differently wrong, e.g. ‘Why are you worrying about younger, more noteworthy people dying when you’ve just buried your own Grandmother?’

So, I propose a new List. One that takes into account the nuances of human feeling, is inclusive and evolving rather than set in stone, and is altogether less judgmental and point-scoring.

1. Care is not a competition, nor is your capacity for it finite. You are allowed to care about whatever you care about, and that does not detract from other things you may care about but have not explicitly mentioned.

2. Grief is personal and manifests in myriad ways. The one who weeps publicly does not necessarily care more than the one who carries their burden silently, and vice versa.

3. You do not have to publicly acknowledge all sides of a situation. It is enough to know that they exist. You can pick one side, you can empathise with all sides, you can remain neutral, you can express a view, you can choose not to express a view, you can get involved, you can keep out altogether. The choice is yours and no one has the right to tell you otherwise.

4. Your own immediate problems are allowed to trump solving the ills of the world. If you are currently tied up with sorting out the hole in your roof, you are excused from dropping everything this very second to go on a fundraising walk for 10,000 people whose homes blew away in a hurricane. This doesn’t mean you don’t feel great concern for those people, nor that you won’t pick up your charity work once your roof tiles are nailed back on and the water in the back bedroom has been mopped up.

5. The apparent failure to pass appropriate comment on news stories does not mean you are antipathetic to the plights of those affected. You may not have seen the story, or you may be aware of it, but feel you have nothing constructive to say. Likewise, just because you didn’t see media coverage of a particular incident, doesn’t mean there wasn’t any.

6. Religion is always a contentious point. If you are religious, please understand that questioning the tenets of a belief system is not a personal attack on you, and that condemning extremist views of any faith is not a condemnation of all members of that faith. If you aren’t religious, understand that some people are offended by any questioning of their belief system, so keep things factual, and keep a polite neutral tone. The first person to resort to ridicule has lost the argument.

7. Blaming all persons in a specific group for the actions of a few displays ignorance and prejudice. Conversely, dismissing certain killers as ‘lone psychopaths’ when they’ve left ample evidence of their racist or misogynist agendas is dismissive of the dangers certain groups face because of the attitudes of society.

8. Check your privilege. Yes, I know many roll their eyes at this phrase, but it’s important to remember not everyone gets the same chances in life, and meritocracy is largely a myth. You, a well-connected white male, may well believe you were the ‘best candidate’ for your job, but the Black woman with a better degree and more experience who was passed over has grounds for smelling a rat. Similarly, you never know the circumstances of an individual’s life, thus an apparently privileged person could be experiencing an horrific time and the last thing they need is to to be told how great their life is.

9. Lived experience trumps statistics. Many don’t report harassment or discrimination for fear of reprisals.  Just because a report says we’re all equal now, doesn’t mean we are.

10.  My house, my rules; your house, your rules.  My blog is where I get to write about whatever I want. No one else gets to edit or approve it. Comments are moderated. I don’t have to provide a platform for you to disagree with me. If you feel strongly enough to express that disagreement, you do so on your own blog. This is not censorship.

11. Pick your battles. If you don’t feel particularly strongly about an issue, it’s not worth losing friends over it. If you do feel strongly about something, to the point of falling out with people, then it’s probably best to call time on said friendships rather than compromise your ideals.

12. Try to empathise with people in a way that is right for them, rather than is right for you. Telling a bereaved atheist that they might find comfort in the Lord is beyond offensive, as is saying to a bereaved religious person, ‘so much for your god, eh?’ At times like these, a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ will suffice.

13. Stop saying ‘It’s not [fill in the blank], it’s people.’ Of course it’s people. Nobody thinks weapons go on rampages on their own; or that the pages of books whisper in corners and plan divisions. But people are a product of their circumstances, and some minds can be manipulated to view those outside their own group as the enemy. There are no ‘lone gunmen’. Nobody ‘just snaps’.  There is always a trail leading up to any kind of tragedy. If we ignore such trails, history will repeat itself again and again. Yes, it’s people. People whose hands are forced by the availability of weapons; indoctrination by extremists; an entitled set who tell them that other human beings are theirs for the taking and consent means nothing.

14. There are no simple answers to the world’s many problems. ‘Just stop war.’ ‘Love one another.’ ‘Listen to the other side.’ ‘Think positively.’ If any of these and other platitudes achieved the effect of opposing sides each having a lightbulb moment, laying down their arms and saying, ‘you know what? We should just stop fighting, accept we have different views, and love each other anyway,’ wars would have ended centuries ago.  Everyone wants peace, but they want it by their own definition and on their own terms. When two sides each see the other as fundamentally wrong, there can be no peace. This is the cycle of human nature in our current state of spiritual/mental/moral evolution. Maybe some time in the future things will change for the better, but for now the best we can do is ensure we cause each other the least possible harm.


Duck-Billed Platitudes

American Psycho was on TV last night. Right before Patrick Bateman killed the homeless man, he told him that if he changed his attitude, he’d be able to get out of his situation.

This was a fine piece of synchronicity as I’d recently had a disagreement with a white, middle class, privately educated, New Age Guru-type who thought victims of abuse brought it on themselves and that they spoke about it as a way of creating drama and getting attention, yet preciously nurtured his own ‘Ancestral Wound’, to wear like the badge he accused abuse survivors of sporting. Metaphysician, heal thyself.

His response to my telling him he was wrong was instant butt-hurt sarcasm, which I felt was a far from enlightened approach, and more the kind of thing someone like… oh, I don’t know… Patrick Bateman might say. Because it is this very attitude, this borderline psychopathic lack of empathy and understanding that marks out a pseudo-spiritual person who, instead of imparting wisdom, spouts the soundbites of quackery I like to call Duck-Billed Platitudes. You know the kind of thing: ‘Leap into the Unknown and the Universe will catch you.’ ‘As one door closes, another one opens.’ ‘Change your attitude and you won’t be homeless or murdered by a Yuppie.’

To react defensively to being questioned is a sign of both a fragile ego, and the fear, if not knowledge, that you are wrong. I’ve seen this reaction in followers of conventional religions and alternative spirituality, as well as in everyday work and social situations. It displays a wilful lack of self-awareness, and virtually negates the right to advise someone else on how to live their life, let alone take money for doing so.

Lest you think I’m an across the board naysayer, I’ll lay my (Tarot) cards on the table. I have never followed a conventional religion but for a good ten years or so I was heavily into the Alternative Spirituality/Wicca/Pagan scene. Many of my best friends are still active in this area, and whilst I haven’t entirely left it all behind, I’m no longer so naively accepting, and temper everything I encounter with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ve met many healers, teachers, gurus, psychics, Magickians, witches etc., and can sort the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly.

What tipped me over the edge from blanket acceptance to semi-rational thinking (no one is fully rational, despite what they may think) came in two parts. The first was the advice of a Tarot reader who told me that my particular problem had a practical solution rather than a spiritual one. I wasn’t ready to hear that, so ignored him and continued to wait for something magical to save me. It never came. The second was when I was reading a bestselling book whose central premise was that to live in the ‘now’ was somehow the answer to everything. It went on to explain that if you consider where you are at this exact moment, without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, all is well.

And it was. I was comfortable in my bed reading a book. No one was harassing me, I wasn’t in pain, and yet… The chances are if you’re reading a book, at that exact moment, things are relatively fine and dandy. You might be wrongly imprisoned, living on the street, or in hospital, but if you’re physically reading a book you’re probably not being tortured, beaten, or operated on at the same time.

But then something clicked. Knowing what’s in your future isn’t the same as worrying about a possible future that may never come to pass. I might be nicely tucked up in bed now but in a few hours I would be at a job I hated. A job that paid me just enough to survive, but not enough to get ahead. A job that kept me from what I really wanted to do. A job where I wasn’t valued in any way, where the menial tasks it involved were presented as something beyond my capabilities, where I was sneered at for having different interests from everyone else there and treated like a trouble maker for not fitting in and expecting them to adhere to the terms of my contract.

Then I realised. The faux-spirituality I’d been clinging to was bullshit. The Universe wasn’t waiting to shower me with abundance the moment I took a leap of faith. If walked out of my job, I’d leave with no references, so no chance of getting a new one, thereby leaving me with no money to pay rent or bills, and on the fast track to homelessness.

I was angry. All this time I’d wasted hoping that my life would get better simply because I wanted it to, all the gut-wrenching despair I had to suppress or else acknowledge that, in my airy-fairy, New Age set of rules, my life was shit because that’s all I deserved and all the creative projects I wanted to work on should be thrown in the trash because the Universe hadn’t wanted them to date, so probably never would.

Duck-Billed Platitudes are a crutch, a distraction from the problems of the real world. To hide behind spurious spiritually is a fearful head-in-the-sand approach that stems from victim blaming; i.e. those people are suffering because they deserve it, If I’m good, if I pray, if I trust the Abundant Universe it won’t happen to me. But bad things do happen to good people just as good things regularly happen to bad people.

The other side of the coin is the justification of privilege. The insistence that ‘I’ve done well in life because I worked hard.’ Never mind the education, the rich parents. It has always been the case that the poorest people are the hardest workers but when you earn a few pounds per hour, there aren’t enough hours in the day to become rich.

There is good spirituality though. It is the kind that nurtures, the kind that doesn’t judge, the kind that doesn’t put itself on a pedestal. It is welcoming and inclusive, and when its ideas are challenged, it takes the challenges on board to correct where it is misguided. And most of all, it offers practical help in practical situations rather than empty words from an empty soul.


You’re Only Supposed To Blow The Bloody Doors Off

I love words. I love that they have specific definitions, yet are malleable enough to convey subtle meanings beyond the obvious. In face-to-face conversations, these subtleties multiply, and with body language and shared history coming into play, the words themselves can take second place to the vibe and tone of the occasion.

With the written word, however, it’s there on the page; a permanent record to be picked apart and analyzed. There should be no room for misinterpretation. This is why grammar is important. A misplaced word can alter meaning completely.

One of the words that seems to cause problems is ‘only’. As a general rule, the word ‘only’ directly affects the word that follows it.  If you’ve ever struggled with where to place this word in a sentence, perhaps this will help.

Everyone understands the intended meaning of the famous sentence I’ve used for the title of this post, but let’s shift that ‘only’ around and see what happens.

1. Only you‘re supposed to blow the bloody doors off.
This means that you, and you alone are the one who is supposed to blow the bloody doors off.

2. You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.
We know this one. Blowing the bloody doors off is the extent of what you are supposed to do.

3. You’re supposed only to blow the bloody doors off.
You’re expected just to blow the bloody doors off, not to destroy them in some other way.

4. You’re supposed to only blow the bloody doors off.
Same as 3 but with a split infinitive.

5. You’re supposed to blow only the bloody doors off.
You’re expected to blow off the specific doors to which we refer, not any old random doors.

6. You’re supposed to blow the only bloody doors off.
The doors you are expected to blow off are the doors which are bloody, not any of the other doors.

7.You’re supposed to blow the bloody only doors off.
Now we’re getting silly. These are the only doors there are, they’re bloody, and you’re supposed to blow them off.

8. You’re supposed to blow the bloody doors only off.
You’re required to blow the doors off. Not in, out, or up into space. Just off.

9. You’re supposed to blow the bloody doors off only.
As the ‘only’ comes at the end of the sentence, it indicates that this is all that is required of you. Blow the bloody doors off and do no more. We’re done here.


Can Men Be Feminists?

There’s an ongoing ‘Can Men Be Feminists?’ debate on Twitter, and my goodness, has that escalated quickly. I almost joined the discussion when it started, but had a pretty good idea how it would pan out, so I kept out for a while, but with people being misunderstood and misrepresented left, right, and centre, now’s as good a time as any for a post with some points to consider on the subject.

Although inspired by the recent discussion (prompted by writer Matt Haig) and subsequent fall out, the problems of which are expertly pointed out by Andrew Eaton-Lewis here —

— my post is not directed at anyone in particular, but at all who might be interested, and I don’t claim to speak for or represent anyone but myself. Matt, if you find yourself here, I’d like you to know that I wholeheartedly support your writing about how toxic masculinity harms men, but I agree with the points in Andrew’s blog about how the discussion surrounding it was handled.

So, can men be feminists? In theory, yes, though perhaps a better description might be ‘feminist allies’. And if you’re a man who wants to be a feminist ally, you must first listen to and learn from women, because how ever much sympathy you may have for feminist issues, you do not have the lived experience of misogyny and the patriarchy.

Seek to understand, but don’t pretend to know.

Feminism’s aim is equality by way of raising up women. It is not the job of feminism to address how men suffer because of the patriarchy, that is a separate issue. Feminism does not exclude men, but neither does it take on their issues. Feminism is first and foremost about freeing women from oppression.

If you want to be a good ally, your starting point is the support of women and their goals. If the knock-on effect of any societal changes helps men too, then that’s good. But a feminist ally helps women first. If you can only support women when it benefits men, we’re not on the same page.

For women to achieve true equality, a certain amount of male privilege may be lost. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of promoting one particular group’s rise to equality, then call yourself an equalist, a ‘personist’, an anti-misogynist, or anything you want, but don’t pretend to have feminist ideals.

Toxic masculinity hurts everyone, but it hurts women most of all. Men hurt by it need to address it in their own way, not by trying to appropriate feminism. Men can be kind, smart, considerate, non-misogynistic, and suffering in their own way, but still get it wrong. Going on the attack is not the way to move forward. Learn from women. Listen to them. If we say you’ve said/done something sexist, seek to understand why. It will make you a better ally.

When I was in my teens, the male bass player in my first band introduced me to feminism. Martin never preached, or tried to tell me I was living my life wrong, he just gently pointed out that feminists weren’t the jackbooted man-haters portrayed by the media, that women had options other than being eye-candy and could make political points with their music if they wanted to, but equally didn’t have to. In other words, to be a feminist is for a woman to live her life by her own informed choices.

Martin was a sweet boy, with an equally sweet mother who let us rehearse noisily in her house and fed us before gigs. He also had an amazing feminist girlfriend who was strong and beautiful, wore miniskirts, and shaved the sides of her head. Martin wore glasses and played a Rickenbacker bass with a plectrum so thin we called it The Rizla. He was a local rockstar who photocopied his own gig flyers. He read interesting books and went on political rallies. He was kind and sensitive, and not afraid to show emotion or cry. In other words he was a real man. Because real men come in all shapes, sizes, and persuasions, as do real women.

Never let anyone tell you you’re not a ‘real man’ because you don’t objectify women and get into fights. Real men need to stand together against toxic masculinity. And when you do, real women will stand beside you supporting you and urging you on, just as some of you have stood beside us urging us to become our best selves.


Room For An Argument

“Is this the right room for an argument?”
Monty Python

If you express an opinion via Twitter and no Derailer is waiting to pounce and instigate the pile-on, are you still wrong?

The answer is, of course, yes. How ever humble, arrogant, studied, or ill-considered your opinion, someone somewhere will disagree with it. But the answer is also no. Though the facts or ideas surrounding it may be wrong, your opinion remains your opinion, and you are entitled to hold it, regardless of how silly it is or how vital it may be to educate you out of it. And make no mistake, someone online will try to ‘educate’ you in their own sweet, unique way, which on closer inspection will probably turn out to be neither sweet nor unique.

I am talking about the particular type of Internet troll I call The Derailer. The Derailer may act out of innocence, ignorance, boredom, spite, or even a combination of these and other factors. What they do is throw a spanner into the works of an argument or conversation and either take it off into an unrelated tangent, or drive it around in circles until it disappears up its own logic hole.

In a real-life, one-to-one discussion, a practiced Derailer can run enough rings of confusion around you to make you start to doubt yourself and have you explaining what you meant in such convoluted ways, the conversation has effectively been shut down before you realise what they’ve done.

The interesting thing about online arguments is that you start to see many different people using the same derailing techniques, which enables you to deal with them more effectively. Here are some of these techniques. I am deliberately using Wikipedia links to the following terms for two reasons. Firstly, the articles are a useful springboard to further research; and secondly because seasoned Derailers will often try to tell you your points are invalid because you’ve used Wikipedia links. So bring it on.

The Straw Man Argument

 This is one of the most popular derailing techniques. Basically, it’s when someone ‘tears down’ your argument based on what you didn’t actually say.

I’ve experienced this numerous times both online and in the real world. While sometimes this is done maliciously, I don’t think every instance has been deliberate. Sometimes people feel so strongly around a certain subject, they imagine you’ve said something you haven’t. Or perhaps I’m being too charitable.

An extreme example would be Person A says ‘animals shouldn’t be in zoos’ and the Straw Man Derailer would come back with, ‘But think of all the chaos and lives lost when you turn wild animals loose on the streets! How could you propose such a stupid thing?’ Person A has proposed nothing of the kind, but now has to waste time explaining what they did mean only to find said explanations will be similarly misrepresented.

The Fallacy of Relative Privation

This is the famous ‘How can you complain about x when there are children starving in Africa?’ This example is given on the above Wikipedia page, as is the one about ‘crying over having no shoes until meeting a man who had no feet.’ Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, the man with no feet should be chastened by the existence of the man with no legs, who in turn should count his blessings he’s not the man with no limbs at all, who himself is thanking his lucky stars he’s not the man who’s dead, who, by all accounts used his last breath to give thanks for the life he had, a life which had been denied to the man who never existed at all, who, in this world of fallacious arguments, appears to have trumped everyone. Let’s all think about him for a moment with our eyes downcast in shame.

In a nutshell, it is the trick of dismissing someone’s argument or cause because something worse or more important is going on somewhere in the world. It is an attempt to make you feel guilty or foolish for expressing what they would have you think is a shallow, unworthy concern.

In reality, you are allowed to care about many things of varying magnitude. Just because you’re concerned about the immediate problem of, say, your television having caught fire and have dared to tweet about this First World Problem doesn’t mean that you’re saying you have it worse than people starving or living in a war zone. It is a form of

Whataboutery or Whataboutism

Another popular ploy is the

Ad Hominem Attack

where instead of countering the points of the argument, the Derailer attacks the person making the points instead. Sometimes this can be relevant, people in glass houses, and all that, but you don’t have to be pure in every thought and deed to recognise injustice and point it out.

All these derailing approaches more or less boil down to the same thing: you’ve said something the Derailer doesn’t like, and they want to shut you up and leave you feeling as bad as possible. If you get into an argument with one of these types, you have a few options.

The most common advice given is Don’t Feed The Trolls. If someone is outright abusive, it’s simpler to report, block, and move on. The problem with Derailers is that they either start out reasonably to draw you in, or their initial attack is an almost clever misrepresentation that you can’t just leave unchallenged.

For any kind of discussion based argument with anyone my recommendations are as follows.

1. Never, ever resort to ranting, abuse, or swearing. What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet. Somewhere there will be a permanent record of your exchange. Don’t be the one who comes across as the aggressor. While reeling off a litany of profanity may offer some instant gratification, it won’t be quite so gratifying if selective screencaps portray you as a foul-mouthed bully.

2. Make sure your argument is sound. By which I mean that you’ve actually thought it through, you stand by it, and, above all, it’s reasonable. This may sound like some kind of cap on freedom of expression, it’s not. If you stand by unreasonable views, you come across as an unreasonable person. It’s always surprising how the most reasonable of opinions can provoke an unreasonable response on the Internet, so why put yourself in the position of having to defend or backtrack over expressing something that makes you come across as the troll?

3. Keep calm. Always. Point out where they have misunderstood or misrepresented you and explain simply without condescension. This approach will bore them into giving up faster than any other.

And it’s all summed up perfectly here.


An Atheist Primer

“All deities reside in the human breast.”
William Blake

It seems many are confused as to what an atheist is. So, in a similar vein to my post on feminism,
here is an irreverent primer on atheism.

Let’s start with the obvious questions and statements atheists are often bombarded with.

Q. How can you say atheism isn’t a belief system when you believe there’s no God?

A. Atheists do not believe there is no God. Atheists do not believe there is a God. There is a vital though subtle difference between the two.

To say you believe there is no God would be to make a presumptive statement without sufficient, verifiable evidence to support it. A bit like saying you believe there is a God.

If you say you do not believe there is a God, however, what you’re saying is that, based on all available evidence, the existence of a God is unlikely enough as to be discountable. Which brings me to…

Q. What about agnostics? Aren’t you just sitting on the fence, ready to change your mind at a moment’s notice?

A. Contrary to popular belief, an agnostic is not merely a ‘don’t know’. Agnosticism is the idea that nothing can be known about the existence or nature of God. Many atheists are what’s known as agnostic atheists; their position is that nothing can be known either way, and they lean towards not believing in a God.

Q. Why do you hate God?

A. It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a silly question, but this comes close. You cannot hate what doesn’t exist. You may as well ask, why do you hate unicorns? But who’d hate unicorns when they’re all sweetness and light? God, who smites nations willy-nilly, and allegedly condones punishment of people for spurious crimes, is far more worthy of hate. But as he/she/it isn’t real, atheists don’t hate God any more than we hate any other pantomime villain.

What I actually hate is religion. Outdated, harmful beliefs that have no basis in reality, yet are pandered to because religion is used to control people. It’s no coincidence that the poorest countries whose people suffer most are the ones where religious belief has the strongest grip.

Q. See, you don’t respect my beliefs. You must respect my beliefs. Why don’t you?

A. Actually, I don’t have to respect your beliefs. I accept your right to your beliefs, but I don’t have to respect the beliefs themselves. In fact, your rights end where mine begin. So if your belief is that I should be harmed for not agreeing with your belief, is it you who is in the wrong. Legally and morally. And talking of morals…

Q. If you don’t believe that God watches everything you do, won’t you just run around stealing and murdering? Where do you get your morals from?

A. My morals come from empathy. I know it’s wrong to hurt others, I know it’s wrong to steal, I know it’s wrong to murder. I also know it’s wrong to discriminate against people based on the prejudices of an ancient book. If your morals come via texts that require ‘blasphemers’, gay people, rape victims, or disbelievers to be killed, then in the real world, you are the one without morals.

Q. So you worship Satan/science/money/yourself?

A. No. Atheists don’t worship anything. That’s the point. Satan’s not real, science is there to be challenged and advanced, money is a tool for control, and I am but a humble creature trying to navigate the world and do what I can to leave it better than I found it. No one should worship anything. If you worship something, you give yourself an inferior mindset and halt your own progress.

Q. If God appeared before you and proved you wrong, your world would crumble, wouldn’t it?

A. No. If a genuine God appeared before me, I’d be fascinated and would ask it all the same questions Stephen Fry would. Why the hate? Why the suffering? To be honest, I think it’s more likely that extraterrestrials with superior technology exist, the kind of technology that is sufficiently advanced as to appear indistinguishable from magic (to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke). Which brings me neatly to…

Q. How do you know there’s not a Creator?

A. I don’t. Currently, we can never know whether there is or isn’t a Creator. My thoughts on this are that if there is or was such a Creator, it’s far more likely to be from an advanced civilisation with technology superior enough to appear  as magic. Or miracles. (See what I did there?)

This is not to suggest I’m putting forward the Alien God theory, but there are many passages in the Bible that could be read as primitive people’s accounts of things we now have better explanations for: Everything springing from nothing = the Big Bang; Eve created from Adam’s rib = cloning; two of every species fitted into Noah’s Ark = frozen sperm and ova thereof; Ezekiel’s Wheel = UFO; The Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant, from where God speaks to Moses = radio/telephone. And there are many more examples. But even if we were created by members of a superior race or species, it doesn’t mean we should worship them, or that they are still around invisibly watching and judging us.

The  problem, you see, is not the existence or non-existence of any kind of God. The problem is with religion. If you believe your holy texts to be the unadulterated words and rules of your God, and this is kind of the definition of religion, then you can’t pick and choose. You have to face up to the problematic passages that tell you how to treat your slaves, how to condemn people who don’t think exactly as you do, how to subjugate women, how to define non-believers as subhuman. You can’t say ‘that was for then, now it’s different,’ without admitting that these are not the timeless words of God, but the prejudices of men from those days.

It’s not the supernatural element of the idea of God that disturbs me, though unquestioning faith in unreality can be harmful in itself, it is that people put words into God’s mouth  and use religion for their own ends. That is more of an abomination that non-belief ever could be.


Gods And Monsters



As current news is filled with the appalling murders, floggings, beheadings and various other evil acts committed in the name of some or other religion, we are hearing a lot more of this word: Blasphemy. Defined by the first Google hit as “the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.”

Articles are springing up, arguing various angles. One I read today explained how non-believers simply don’t understand that gods are as real and beloved to some people as their own families, hence the Pope metaphorically wading in with fists flying at the prospect of a ‘yo mama’ joke.

The thing is, we do understand. We understand that to believers their god, be it a big old man in the sky, an all-pervading force for good, or any other permutation of supreme being, is as real and beloved as anything can be, and that perceived or obvious slights offend you.

What believers don’t understand is just how offensive religion is.

The holy books of all religions contain problematic passages that promote inequality and violence. But even leaving those aside, religion itself is deeply offensive to many of us.

Everyone is free to believe whatever they want, regardless whether or not it is real or true. But no one has the right to expect others to accept those beliefs without challenge. Just as I accept your right to your beliefs (but not your actual beliefs), you must accept my right not to believe in anything for which there is no proof or satisfactory evidence.

This, of course, is where all the problems start. For someone who believes in god and perhaps follows a religion (those two things are not the same, though often go together), the reality of said god and religion is equal to the reality of the Earth being a sphere (though it wasn’t always believed to be so), and they feel their holy books provide proof enough.

But these things are not proof. They are not even evidence. When non-believers speak irreverently about gods and sacred things it is sometimes in an attempt to help people see religion for what it really is: a system of control. In the UK, some of our highest clergy members have hinted that they don’t believe in god per se, yet feel that religious structures have a use in society. Do you really think a god, a supreme being, would care whether or not a woman showed her face in public? Do you think it would care whether people ate meat and cheese from the same plate? Or if two people of the same sex fell in love? These are the rules of men, not gods, taken from books written by men who claim to speak for gods.

This is why I find the concept of religion so offensive. Holy men live in palaces filled with fine art and treasures while their people go hungry. Loving couples are shunned because they don’t fit an ancient brief. Women are murdered for being raped. Children’s bodies, girls and boys, are mutilated. If there was a god, it would be disgusted at the words men have put into its mouth, at what is done in its name, at how the vulnerable are held to ransom with promises of all being well in the hereafter.

Therefore I understand perfectly why religious people don’t want their beliefs scrutinised, and why they sometimes defend the indefensible so strongly.

When people resort to violence, abusive language, or other displays of aggression, they have lost the argument. Some may feel that a loss of temper underscores how passionately they feel about something. I disagree. When passions rise, reason is lost, and arguments can only be won via reason.

When an animal displays aggression, it is to mask intense fear. Same for people.

When people become violent or aggressive because someone has disagreed with or challenged them, it is because they fear they are wrong but have gone too far along a certain path to back down without losing face. People who are confident of their opinions, views, and beliefs do not need to attack. They simply sit back calmly and wait for others to catch up.

Believe whatever makes sense to you, but only after careful consideration. Examine your texts, screeds, and books, and make sure you know exactly what you’re agreeing to before signing on the dotted line, and understand that when non-believers shine light onto the dark, unquestioned corners of your holy books, we do so to free you from the shackles of religion in the hope that we will also become free to live without fear of vengeance from the disciples of man made monsters.


How Not To Be A Lady


Last night, I was fortunate enough to see Kate Bush’s ‘Before The Dawn’ show. It was a magical experience. For me, the best part was discovering that her voice and musicianship are the best they’ve ever been, unlike so many other artists who can’t cut it live. But for those of an insensitive disposition, the most important thing about Kate Bush’s return to live performance seems to be that she no longer looks exactly the same as when she was 19 years old.

On the way home, I came across a review for the Big Issue by Rachel Johnson, a woman who made a documentary entitled ‘How To Be A Lady’, concerning manners and etiquette. #Irony. The review wasn’t favourable, but that’s neither here nor there. I enjoyed the show, others didn’t. That’s fine.

What’s not fine is this:

‘…that’s really THE KATE BUSH in pudgy white bare feet and black velour trousers’

This direct quote is the first of a series of digs about weight.

Here’s another: …’ a middle-aged woman who looks as if she’s bust loose from a Weight Watchers class to express herself with an I (sic) interpretative dance solo, would make it these days past the first round of The X Factor.’

And another: ‘… she’s doing this after packing it all in for thirty years and bringing up her son, and clearly not skimping on the pasties’

These direct quotes are taken from a cached version of the piece as I saw it on the Big Issue website last night.

It has since been edited and some of these jibes removed. No apology from the Big Issue, just a hasty back-covering edit. Shame on you, Big Issue, for printing it in the first place, and for sweeping it under the carpet when you realised it was wrong.

I will list here the times it’s ok to comment on the weight or other physical characteristics of an artist.


That’s right. It is never ok to do this, as the appearance of an artist is totally irrelevant to the quality of their work.

I saw for myself last night that Kate Bush is still a very beautiful woman but that is also irrelevant to her work.

Her voice is stronger and more controlled now than it was at the first height of her career. This is relevant.

Relevant comments on her appearance would include that she appeared confident and happy to be back on stage; she appeared as a woman in control of her art and her career; she appeared as an artist connected to her audience; she appeared as someone of great vision and originality.

That a woman such as Kate Bush can achieve so much on her own terms is something to be lauded. Her appearance has always been judged where it should not have been. Far too many saw her as a pretty teenager in a leotard when the focus should have been on the beautiful songs she wrote at such a young age.

And now, when she is older, wiser and even more original in today’s manufactured, soulless, reality TV musical climate, she is pulled apart for her looks by those with less talent, less originality, and less integrity.

Women suffer so much misogyny, especially in music, and it’s even more of a stab in the back when it comes from other women. When, as a teenager myself, I had some demos reviewed in the music press, the female journalist spent the majority of the review slating my photos as being designed to influence a male reviewer. The pictures, incidentally, were head shots, and I was wearing a high necked grey t-shirt. But apparently my face/hair was some kind of trap that she wasn’t about to fall into.

When someone tries to point out another’s perceived failings, it shines the light on their own. The writer who denounced Kate Bush’s feet as ‘pudgy’ has pictures of her own feet on her Twitter page. So now I’m looking at them critically and finding them wanting. Whilst pudgy trumps gnarled in my book, it’s neither kind nor relevant to mention it.

But I don’t ask reviewers to be kind, only fair and reasonable. And whilst it is reasonable to express dislike or disappointment at an event, it is not fair to resort to playground taunts.

Rachel, if you’re interested to know what I took away from your review of the show, it’s this: that you’re probably quite insecure and need a fair bit of attention, even if it’s negative; that you don’t really understand much about musicians and music lovers if you think that artists should whore themselves to their ‘fans’ rather than remain true to their art (to mention X-Factor in the same breath as an actual artist such as Kate Bush compounds this); and that you don’t understand that bitchy comments don’t make for incisive critique.

If you want some advice, Rachel, aspire to be better than this. Girls and women need to know they can be valued for something other than their looks. We need role models. Kate Bush is one. With a little thoughtful effort maybe you can be too. Don’t be part of the problem.


It’s Not Me, It’s You. An Open Letter to the Music Business

I fell in love with music at the age of three when I passed a school and heard a choir singing. I knew then that singing was all I ever wanted to do. But then, at around the age of 18, give or take a year, I met you and everything changed. You killed that love.

Now, many years later, I can’t remember the last time I sang for pleasure. For a long time, I blamed music, or rather I blamed singing. Why was I given a voice when it’s brought me nothing but heartache? And for many years I didn’t sing at all. I did jobs I hated even more than I hated the machinations of the music business. But now, as one of the many repeating patterns of disappointment and inconvenience is repeating yet again, I finally realise it’s not me, it’s you.

You promised me so much, but always snatched the rug away at the last moment. Just like an abusive lover, you were eager and attentive at first. You told me I was special, that there was no one else like me. Oh, how glad you were to have met me. We could change each other’s lives.

But then you’d change. You’d stop calling every day. You’d find fault with everything I did. The songs you’d claimed to love somehow didn’t sound as good now the time had come for you to take the next step and invest. Dedication, practice and gigging improved my voice, so you couldn’t say anything negative about that, instead you made irrelevant excuses for your sudden cooling off: I was too old at 21, too young at 22; too blonde, not blonde enough; looked better as a redhead, a brunette; with a tan, without a tan; I should write all the songs myself, should write with someone else; until eventually I got sick of the same old stories and left.

Then, just when I think I’ve finally broken the pattern, you come back, cap in hand, promising it will be different this time, and you somehow manage to draw me back in with the same old sweet talk and false promises.

But this time it was different. I’d found something else. Something that wasn’t music, something that might even pay well eventually, but you just couldn’t let me have it.

You knew, in this age of home studios and online sales, that you couldn’t get your hands on my music, so you tried a different tack. You couldn’t take my music, but you could take my time. You knew you couldn’t get away with asking me to work for you for nothing,  so you lured me in with promises of upfront fees. I know you like us skinny, but even artists have to eat occasionally.

So  I cleared a space for you again. Set aside my precious things, because this time you’d taken hostages, and if I said no, the only ones hurt would be them. And me. Always me.

The artists will always suffer at your hands. Because to you the only word that matters is ‘Business’. Music will always be secondary. A tacked-on qualifier that sounds like the ringing of cash registers,  the only ‘music’ that brings you joy. A nebulous word that is as insubstantial as the fee that dissolves into the ether as soon as you get me hooked again.

As long as you hold the purse strings, artists will always be barefoot and pregnant. Because that’s how you like us. That’s how you live through us, suck out our souls, and bleed us dry of hope.

There are clearly lessons to be learned from my reliving certain situations again and again, but I’m damned if I know what they are. And until I learn them, I’m condemned to repeat them. I try to take ownership of the unfortunate outcomes of so many arrangements. I must be missing some vital element that makes me fall for the same lines and make the same mistakes in business again and again, but I can’t work out what I’m doing wrong other than to believe what I’m told and to expect to receive what I’ve been promised.

Should I really distrust people, blame all for the wrong-doings of some? Is it really naive to take people at their word? Should I doubt first, make others jump through hoops before giving up the goods? Or should I carry on as usual, treat people how I like to be treated, assume their word is their bond, assume them innocent until proven guilty? Is ethical behaviour really too much to expect?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite so many of us having bad experiences in the music business, I’d like to think it’s more incompetence than malice that makes bad things happen to good people. But then, maybe I am naive. Maybe the dollar signs in your eyes have blinded you to the harm you do to already fragile people. People who should be nurtured and cared for rather than exploited, used up and thrown in the trash.

Because that’s what keeps happening to me and thousands like me, over and over again until we believe the world – your world – has no place for us, and we give up on our dreams and settle for a life only half-lived, because it’s just too much to try to navigate the treacherous oceans of your world.

Maybe one day I will learn the lesson the Universe keeps trying to teach me, and either I’ll leave your world behind for good, or cultivate the tools to exist comfortably within it. And maybe I’m actually getting there, because this time, I’m pretty damn sure that it isn’t me, it’s you.


Her Choice?


We know that porn harms relationships. Not just because some view it as cheating to focus sexual energy on a person other than one’s partner, but also because it causes skewed expectations of sex, and promotes a lack of understanding of how a woman’s body works. It can also lead to a kind of body fascism where normal, average looking people are made to feel unworthy, and it reduces people – men and women, but mostly women – to the status of a commodity, an object.

Porn is about the exploitation of women. All women. The attitudes perpetuated by porn affect women in all walks of life from those who have nothing personally to do with it, to those who perform in it.

‘But wait,’ is the oft repeated counter argument, ‘No one is forcing women to do it, and they are paid more than the male performers. It’s their choice.’

Is it really though? We are all the product of our early conditioning and life experiences to such a degree that it is debatable whether we have free will, or are merely repeating learned patterns.

That a high proportion of women in sex industries were abused as children has been the subject of many studies, as has the theory that victims of trauma repeat those experiences, supposedly on their own terms, as a way of taking back control, and seeking a kind of dubious comfort in familiarity. This of course brings into question the whole idea of choice.

Everything we do is coloured by our perception, by our pre-conceived ideas. We make life decisions, good or bad, based on experiences. What kind of experiences might a woman have had that made her think her best option is taking her clothes off and being filmed having sex with someone who isn’t her partner, someone the director has chosen for her?

I do not believe it is about money, freely expressed sexuality, independence, a misguided sense of empowerment, or any number of excuses people make.

We are what we’re told or shown we are at a very young age, directly or indirectly. Just switch on the television or open a magazine to see examples of how the sexualisation of young girls is treated as normal. This isn’t a recent phenomenon either.

For thousands of years, we have lived in a misogynistic society where women are silenced, objectified, denigrated, to the point where it is very difficult to know whether our choices are truly our own, or whether we are acting on years of conditioning.

Just a few days ago it was reported that the person behind Femen’s topless protests was a man. As I mentioned at the time, getting your tits out is always for the lads, and does nothing, in my opinion, to further the cause of feminism. Did those women genuinely feel their actions were empowering, or were they coerced, persuaded to do so?

As a child I had a couple of minor facial deformities that led to my being mercilessly bullied at primary school. They got fixed, but the bullying didn’t stop. I had already been cast as the monster, so no change in appearance could put that right. So much so that when I was aged around eight or nine, a couple of the bullies threw me into a brick wall and broke my nose, resulting in yet more ‘ugliness’ for me. And as the break didn’t cause breathing problems, I had to wait until I could afford to have it put right privately, which I did just eleven years ago.

So all but the last eleven years of my life have been spent under a cloud of perceived ugliness. The cloud was not there constantly. On good days, I could see that perhaps I was ok, on bad days it was as if the kids that crowded in on me with snarling faces and claw hands (because I was a monster and that’s what monsters do) were still following me.

Is it my choice that I remade myself to fall in line with an image that is considered to be conventionally attractive? Is it my choice that I am virtually unrecognisable to people I knew years ago because I can’t accept my natural appearance? It feels as if it’s my choice, but how can I be sure I would have done the same thing if my experiences had been different? It feels like my choice, but I will never be sure.

It probably also feels like a choice to pose bare-breasted for Page 3, to dance around a pole in perspex shoes, to be a groomed child acting out as a ‘sexual predator’ because that’s what you’ve been told you are.