Thoughts in the Aftermath…

We are in one of those grim periods following an Islamic terrorist related incident, when the news is laden with endless analysis, eye witness interviews, past incidents of a similar nature recalled and the same, frightening, inevitable images relayed repeatedly on our screens.

Will our children and grandchildren and their descendants ever know a time without threats, suspicion, random acts of violence and hate?

Those of us who were born in the fifties, in the aftermath of the Second World War experienced childhoods of peace but relative austerity. There wasn’t a great deal to go around. In the countryside where I grew up our parents cultivated gardens, kept hens, made things last. We were not hungry or deprived, neither were we unhappy. As children we knew nothing of the hardship, terror and atrocity that the war had created, perhaps because of the resolve our parents had to look forward and put all the horror of war behind them.

The random acts of terrorism that democratic countries are experiencing in our times cannot be compared to those wars. A war in the old-fashioned sense would have a conclusion, however many years it lasted. The Jihadist incursions into Syria and Iraq are on the run as they are routed from their strongholds and this can only mean relief and freedom for the oppressed people they have bullied for so long. But the success of the armies fighting them in these far away, Middle Eastern countries does not mean that the extremists will have disappeared or can somehow filter back into conventional, peaceful, happy life. Because whatever it is that is eating away at them will not go away.

I don’t believe that the perpetrator of the Westminster attack was a normal, balanced human being. While IS may have claimed the incident as a successful strike by one of their ‘soldiers’ this man was no more than a dysfunctional, disaffected petty criminal, whose life had been one of disappointment and disillusion. Such spiritually impoverished people are easily deceived into believing in some kind of cause, however distorted and hate-ridden it may be and can turn to extremism as a release for their built-up frustrations.

Sadly, as the war in the Middle East grinds slowly to a conclusion it is likely that we’ll see more isolated attacks by unstable, lone aggressors. But while the violence is devastating and life-changing for any victims involved the perpetrators must be regarded as sick individuals who’ve grasped at a distant, evil organisation and deluded themselves into thinking they belong, rather than elevated members of some dystopian group.

We should take heart from the images we’ve seen of random pedestrians running to aid those who were hurt with no regard for their own safety, for the selfless courage of the policeman who gave his life to protect others and from the stoical adherence to ‘life goes on’ that Londoners have shown.

Most people are good. That is what matters.

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The Big Why

The World events of the last forty eight hours have been a grim catalogue of horrific, grisly and incomprehensible acts that leave those of us who’ve been informed by TV news, radio or newspapers reeling in disbelief and repulsion.

Worse, it is becoming clear that actions by some nations [my own included] to remove what were seen as despotic dictators have actually paved the way for zealots and terrorists to take over-the new version of al Qaeda, but in even more aggressive and unspeakably callous form.

Now, however that the genie is out of the bottle, what is to be done?

Would it help to know what it is IS really wants? In an effort to attempt to understand this I Googled the question. One disquieting discovery is that there is a commitment amongst the terrorists to ‘expand their territory’. They are also, apparently set on provoking a ‘war to end all wars’, to which end they do seem to be marching irrevocably on.

Reading an article recently by a woman posing as one with ambitions to join IS it transpires that young Moslem women and girls who are fleeing to join the ‘Caliphate’ are set on becoming part of what is seen as ‘Utopia’. Now I have my own ideas about what constitutes ‘Utopia’, but it isn’t recognisable in the twisted, repressive and brutal regime of the jihadists. Here is Wikipedia’s version:

“A utopia (/juːˈtoʊpiə/ yoo-toh-pee-ə) is a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities.”

So an IS run state, to these girls is a community possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. What then, to the girls, are these qualities? Piety and following their faith seem to be at the heart of them. When asked about their attitudes towards the committing of atrocities their responses were shrugging acceptance or even condonation. A number of the women have small children. It is difficult to understand how they can accept and even believe in terrorist acts while caring for their own children. It is easier to view murderous bombers and beheaders as marauding male-dominated bands who’ve become de-humanised through a lack of family life and values.

More-life for a woman in IS territory is at best tyrannical and oppressive, at worst dangerous and brutal. Their children will grow up seeing atrocity piled upon atrocity until, inevitably, they follow the same track, even perhaps becoming suicide bombers. Utopia? Not as I think of it.

According to one analyst IS will continue spreading poisonous tentacles and gathering personnel and momentum until poverty and deprivation prompt disenchantment, but he also suggests this will take a very long time. In the meantime some way has to be found to deal with the relentless and horrific acts of violence that this scourge of our age is hell bent on pursuing.

America and Europe currently have no appetite for the all-out war IS allegedly wants. There are no answers, only questions…oh…and hope. In the midst of all the despair and hatred, what is left can only be hope.

Give all you like…Just don’t keep telling me!

                I am sorry to be banging on about Facebook yet again, but whilst I have no wish to leave it [yet] there are elements that I do find irritating and the particular issue I’m tired of this week is pleas for sponsorship.

               OK. This makes me sound humbug enough to get haunted by ghosts dragging chains, I know. I should be reading all these stories of children with wasting diseases, mums who’ve died of cancer, heroes who’ve fought for queen and country and had bits blown off, poor, emaciated donkeys and the deprived local tennis club with tears in my eyes and then rushing to dig out my credit card immediately. I should revere those who are selflessly walking, swimming, jogging, knitting, singing or cycling their way to £10.50 or whatever their target figure is and should be thoroughly ashamed not to be following their shining example or even accompanying them in their respective crusades. Shame on me!

                 But actually, where charities are concerned, to me it is personal. I am not averse to inserting some loose change into the occasional collecting tin, provided the cause is worthy in my eyes, but on the whole I want the choice. I want to choose who I donate to, when I donate and how much. I don’t want to be reminded on a daily basis that this or that FB acquaintance is of such a saintly disposition they are giving of their time for such a selfless act whereas I am content to slob around at home heedless of the plight of such victims as they have elected to support.

                   It seems to me that those of us who are lucky and privileged enough to have been born and brought up in a relatively wealthy western civilisation are the lucky ones. We inhabit a country with a moderately stable climate [alright-it did go a bit pear shaped this winter], we can be provided with enough to get basic provisions, however impoverished we may feel ourselves to be. If our health is threatened we have access to some [admittedly marginal] health care. The authorities can provide some fundamental shelter, if it becomes necessary. This safety net is not available to vast numbers of people in the world; people who live in countries racked by drought, floods, famine or wars. We will never find ourselves stranded in a desert with starving, diseased children and nothing but grass or leaves to eat. We will never have to walk ten miles for some water.

                 This is what makes me averse to donating to the redundant donkeys’ homer, Helicopter rescue or Save the Allotments, although I am in favour of taxation to fund overseas development.

                  I do have my favourites! Oxfam, for one. The charity I do like to support, through a regular  standing order from my bank account, is Wateraid. Because I cannot think of anything more important than the provision of clean, safe water, vital to life itself. But I don’t want to swim, sing, dress up or walk…I’ll just donate, thanks!

It’s all about the Story

                We have made good our escape from windy, waterlogged England and are making for [hopefully] warmer, drier lands to the South.

                In preparation for this first jaunt of 2014 I loaded up my e-reader with some novels I’ve missed, some I was seduced by, having read reviews [though not Amazon’s-having been fooled more than once before] and some I feel it my duty to read.

                The first book is one that surprised me by its 99pence price tag, since it is the book from which the current blockbusting, award winning, sweep-the-board movie was made from-‘Twelve Years a Slave’.

                Now I have yet to see this film, and I’ve no doubt I will, but in my view films rarely match up to their book form. Although I am less than 25% through the story, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ has gripped me and held me in its absorbing clutches. Solomon Northup’s account of his capture and subsequent subjection as a slave is both dignified and moving. He recounts the horrors that he and his fellow slaves endure in a measured, matter of fact narrative. Some of his descriptions are particularly moving, such as his account of the people of the Indian village celebrating with their visitors, enjoying a meal and dancing around a camp fire accompanied by music played on a fiddle [Solomon is himself a fiddle player]. He is captivated by the scene, whilst not once pointing out the irony of their freedom against his captivity.

                There is much to be said for personal accounts of horrific events in history. They tug our emotions more than facts. We all know of the dreadful horrors wrought on so many during the war, but Anne Franck’s diary story, documenting her life and including domestic trivia, teenage angst and family squabbles brings to life the awful reality of the events. It is the story of an ordinary family, one that we can relate to. How much more poignant than factual accounts!

                At school we were taught the dry, fusty dates and facts of history; the reigns of Kings and Queens or the politics behind the wars. If we’d have been given the personal stories behind the events I think we’d have been more interested-interested enough, perhaps to have ceased the passing round of a particularly smutty and sexually explicit paperback that some miscreant had purloined and divided into lesson-sized portions.

What would Solomon make of all the Oscar hullabaloo, I wonder. After all, the success of the film relies entirely on his story, whatever the performances and direction were like.

                We have reached the South of France, where the early March weather is already warm enough during the day to bring a blush of heat to the skin, though plummeting sharply at night. We cycled 25 miles up and down the Canal du Midi in glorious, unbridled sunshine without a cloud, the vineyards laid in neat rows ready to come into leaf. Along the side of the canal those who’ve made their houseboat homes in Dutch barges are busy spring cleaning and sprucing up. Spring must surely be the nicest season, with a promise of long, warm days to come.

                

Elvis and the Egyptian Odyssey

                In the 1970s I undertook some independent, backpacker type travel to Egypt. This meant heaving round a large rucksack and using local transport, in the main, although when you are young this kind of travel seems adventurous rather than daunting. The trip involved flights to Athens, ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria [two days on a vehicle ferry, nights on deck in a sleeping bag], finding a hotel on arrival, moving on by bus to Cairo, finding a hotel, travelling to Luxor down along the Nile on a sleeper train and on to Aswan by minibus; five weeks in all. It was my first sojourn outside of Europe.

                Arriving to the port of Alexandria was a culture shock, since I had not expected Africa’s north coast to feel so alien, so exotic or unnerving. After a long, slow entry through early morning mist to the quayside past skeletal wrecks of long sunken vessels we docked, to be met by a teeming array of jostling, robed porters, hawkers and tourist fleecers. Alighting from the ferry there followed a brief, unseemly struggle to retain control of my rucksack but apart from this there was little to cause alarm or suspicion during the entirety of the trip.

                Everyone we met was eager to help, and not necessarily for remuneration. An enquiry re whereabouts of hotels would be met by offers to accompany us, carry luggage etc. On bus journeys, where the vehicle would resemble a termite nest we would invariably stand, but seated passengers would take items we were carrying on their laps. Conversations were struck wherever we went, with the local population keen to find out about us. There was no suspicion, threat or mistrust.

                The festival of Ramadan took place towards the end of our stay. We’d returned to Alexandria with a few days free to visit the beach and relax. Waiting for a bus to take us back from the beach to the town a couple in a car stopped and offered us a lift. “Did we know”, they asked us, “that Elvis Presley died today?”

                They were keen to chat, needing to pass the time until they could break their fast and eat. I fell ill with food poisoning two days before we left for Piraeous and was compelled to run the gauntlet of the doorless holes in the ground that amounted to the ferry terminal ‘facilities’. Despite this I retained memories of Egypt as a fascinating, beautiful country; packed with history, enigma and mystique.

                I have made one more visit to Egypt since that time-to the tourist Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, for one week-and one week too many!

                I feel no more desire to return to Egypt now than to stick my hand into a hornets’ nest. Nor do I wish to visit any troubled Moslem countries. In the forty or so years that have passed since that innocent piece of travel those parts of the world have changed, become edgy, uneasy places at best-war torn hell holes at worst. Are we ever to move on from historic grievances, bury hatchets and let the by’s be gone? Or are we to be forever the ‘infidel’ and they, forever the ‘heathen’, locked into a spiral of hate and mistrust?

                Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt. I will always know what year it was that Elvis died…it was 1977.