Considering the Light

I dislike John Milton’s poetry, the long winded, never ending poems about the battle between God and the Devil. The only poem I like is a simple poem “On His Blindness” with the line “when I consider how my light is spent” I first read it when I was about 12 years old but I really preferred to read James Thurber’s short stories especially “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Day the Dam Burst”, he also wrote about going blind. My eyesight was perfect at 12 years of age, I never thought about being blind and I didn’t even have to use reading glasses until my late 40s and it is only now as my eyesight gets worse and I have to change my way of living I can understand something of what they both wrote about.

Thurber wrote on black paper using thick white crayon and then white paper using thick black crayon. Three years ago the size font I used on my computer was 14 now it is 20. I have an intense sensitivity to light and in summer I wear sunglasses where ever I go, now that winter is drawing close and the light is grey and flat I can open the curtains and potter in the garden without having to wear them. I also have some strange distortions which Thurber had and like him I have found they do have a comic side to them. I live in a world of Impressionist painting colours where the blue and yellow and gold are so vivid they drown all the other colours. I can’t register red on black or black on red, I have lost that part of the spectrum so I can’t see notice boards on train stations or those electronic notices which tell you the time the bus is arriving, it is extraordinary how many notices are in red and black but they don’t exist for me so I just take pot luck. The last time I did that I stood on a platform in the middle of a field waiting for the train to Chirk while an announcement in Welsh asked me not to smoke on the platform or stand near the edge, presumably the train company had past experiences with passengers losing the will to live and throwing themselves on the track. My back was pulsing with agony but there was nowhere to sit and I had no way of knowing how long I had to wait for the train, thankfully it was only 15 minutes.

And pot luck is what you have to take if you are disabled and want to travel. Every journey I take is researched and organised as if I was going to invade Russia. I am very lucky in Newport which has a modern train station and is completely accessible for a mobility scooter so is Cardiff and I can visit Cardiff, Bristol, Bristol Parkway and London quite easily but the majority of stations are not accessible at all or partially accessible which is a wonderful phrase that means you can visit but you can never leave, because while one platform is okay the other platform can only be reached by stairs, lots of stairs and if you are foolish enough to pitch up at that station without researching its facilities you will be stranded. I have heard some grim stories about disabled people trying to make journeys; one person had to throw their wheelchair from the train onto the platform and then crawl after it because there were no staff around to help her exit the carriage, imagine scrabbling around on a filthy platform in a smart business suit because even though this station was supposed to be disability friendly in reality that was not the case. My thinking about these problems came about because I want to go to a village called Lechlade on Thames and view a canal boat I want to buy. This town doesn’t have a train station so I don’t need to worry about stairs or ramps but it doesn’t have a bus service either and the advice is to get a taxi from Swindon to visit this “delightful river side hamlet”. I can walk with a walking stick so if I followed this guidance I would need to take a train or coach to Swindon and then catch a taxi. This sounds easy but how long is the train platform that I have to walk down before you reach the street, how far would I have to walk to get a taxi, are there any seats I can sit on when the pain in my spine gets really bad and worst of all how many steps to navigate. The whole thing becomes a nightmare which makes me say fine I will order a car from my local cab company and make the entire journey with them in comfort, the only drawback is cost; the last time I did that cost me £250 round trip to Shropshire, again to see a boat. I can afford that but how many people can and why should they?

The other problem I have is ridiculous but I can’t always understand what I am seeing, it is called the “Charles Bonet Syndrome”. The closest thing I can use to explain it are those funny little pictures which start out as a young woman and then resolve themselves into an old woman, what you see is not what you get – I once thought a bag of recycling waiting for the rubbish collection was a person lying ill on the pavement outside my house, I rushed out my front door before it became clear to me what it was.  You become very unsure of yourself and question what is real especially when it affects words and you get a form of dyslexia where the letters don’t make any sense, I have found the best way to deal with this distorted world is to sit quietly and wait for everything to resolve itself, I say “wait for it to resolve” a lot. Fortunately I have a black sense of humour which makes jokes about myself, who but me could see a plastic bag caught on a neighbour’s chimney pot and be convinced it was a small person in a red jumper about to leap from the roof and seriously think I should ring the emergency services?  While I wait for “it” to be resolved I find I have time to think about all kinds of issues which go into my work and I can “consider how my light is spent”.

The Sheep and Me

I come from a farming family, my grandparents had a farm in Devon, so although I have never had to earn a living off the land I know how to do jobs like planting, harvesting and dealing with livestock including sheep. I say this so that anyone reading this can't say "well, this could only happen to a stupid townie who wouldn't know a ewe from a slap round the head with a jelly fish".
This true story starts when I went to visit friends who own a small holding with a couple of horses and four sheep. My friends are elderly and the husband had been quite ill so it was left to his wife to deal with all the animals. One of the sheep had a mild case of foot rot and one grey, muddy afternoon she and I tramped out to the field where the sheep were peacefully munching their day away, me wearing a pair of her old wellie boots, to fix the poor old animals foot which was not healing as well as it should.
The field was boggy, which is not good for foot rot, pools of water stood in little dips in the ground and after some chivvying and tempting with treats we got the sheep cornered and my friend got herself organised to tend the hoof. What was I doing? I was holding the sheep, I knew what I was doing, I had held sheep before and the ewe was docile until she realised that we wanted to fix her sore foot. She turned from being a friendly fat old woolly into a very large, old, soggy (because she had been standing in a field while it rained), extremely heavy grumpy sheep and suddenly I was clinging onto her for grim death. Slowly all her weight was beginning to press into my knees and chest which were bracing her while she stood on three legs and very slowly we began to sink into the mud. It was gradual at first but then seemed to gather pace and became like something out of a "Laurel and Hardy" film as my wellie boots went deeper and deeper into the mud and I struggled to stay upright, the thought of falling over on my back in a sodden field with a gigantic sheep on top of me was becoming a terrible possibility. Somehow I managed to stay on my feet, the treatment was finished and the ewe trotted back to her herd. Mud was over the tops of my wellies and I stank of "eau de sheep" and if you have never smelt that all I can say is you are lucky. I squelched my way back to the farmhouse aching all over.
This happened years ago and I had not thought about it until this weekend when I have been watching the war against IS develop and already you can see the tragedy unfolding, slowly at first with an accidental bombing by the American Air Force of a unit of Iraqi soldiers they mistook for IS fighters while the UK planes fly around in circles trying to find something to kill. Mission creep, such a wonderful term, will happen but then who will our ground forces be fighting for, who will they be allied to and who will be the enemy. Already, like me in that field, everything is getting bogged down but what do we do?
For years whenever I would oppose whichever war was being fought people would say "well, if we don't fight what do we do?" and that used to give me brain freeze.
When I was young I knew the answer, withdraw from Vietnam, stop the killing - it all seemed so clear cut but as the years went by the wars got more confused and the reasons for going to war murkier; wars that should have been fought weren't, wars like Afghanistan and Iraq were and always whether a war was fought or not by America and allies still the suffering of the ordinary people around the world is extreme.
Each of us has to make our own minds up about what I call "the new Iraq war" and whether it is right or wrong but there are simple things that can be done to help the civilians - donate to the various appeals for hospital supplies and support the refugee centres, sponsor an orphan and have an opinion, what is happening is happening in "our" name and we are all being dragged into the mud.

Why are Vikings stealing my organs?

Two years ago I was rushed to hospital in great pain and spent ten days in my local hospital.  I was supposed to have an operation the next day and was put on Nil By Mouth which was fine with me as I never wanted to eat again but due to various problems - a broken air conditioning system in the operating theatre and no surgeons available I spent seven days NBM on a drip before I could have the operation.  This piece is not about my time in hospital it is about my reaction to drugs and how debilitating the whole experience was.  I do not use drugs; no pain killers or any medications because I have always been extremely healthy until Spondilitis reared its ugly head but even then I refused pain killers preferring meditation, breathing and visualisation techniques.  Once in hospital I tried to explain I did not need any pain killers, sleeping pills etc but I had no control over what was administered through the drip so I was given pain killers although I wasn't in pain and pills to stop vomiting although I wasn't vomiting and I noticed that the control I usually have over my thoughts and speech was getting loosened, I was saying and thinking all sorts of odd things and holding conversations on topics I usually mulled over privately in my head - the role of the Lakeland Poets in modern society, Florence Nightingale and pie charts, concentric castles - I began to think I was the "nutter on the bus" as nurses started to look at me askance. Thankfully I wasn't rude or aggressive I just chatted away merrily in a manic fashion.  Finally, my operation went ahead and I was wheeled down to the operating theatre, all the theatre staff were blonde which I found quite interesting in my new weird freewheeling state of mind (did they all go to same hairdresser or did they dye their hair at home?). The operation went well and I was determined to come round from the anaesthetic quickly, repeating to myself over and over "no more drugs" and I groggily asked in the middle of my mantra why were Vikings cutting me up and stealing my organs?  Nothing made sense but then I was back on the ward with a little pump attached to me to self administer morphine when the pain got "bad". My system was awash with drugs, the effects scared me - I lost a day and became convinced Sunday was Monday, I had mild hallucinations involving a dragon and documentary footage of lilac bushes (don't ask, I will never look at dragons the same way again!) was here that I couldn't write about my experiences anymore and I saved the draft. The thing I treasure most, a rational mind and being able to use it unhampered had left me. I earn my living from writing, I value my clear headedness and even more than that my privacy and suddenly I was talking rubbish and thinking mush. So that is where I left my blog with the Vikings wanting  bits of my body and that body 2 stone lighter than when I had gone into hospital 10 days before. Now I have picked it up again all this time later with a new perspective about everything because I have had time to heal and time to think. What happened to my mind isn't unusual, I watched other people on my ward have the same kinds of reactions but the drugs are useful they keep the patient quiet, they make it easier for the nurses to get through their tasks even if the patient is screaming abuse at an imaginary friend or in my case having dragons help Vikings to gather lilac in concentric castles where they met the Lakeland poets, oh lawks, do I spy James Thurber frolicking among the cocktail glasses - yes definitely "nutter on the bus" time but it kept me quiet and hopefully I wouldn't argue with the doctor when he decided I should go to rehab (what for my mind shrieked I don't smoke, drink or use recreational drugs) or a residential old people's home (again I was speechless, I had a perfectly good home to go to when I was released and I know my hair is white but it has been like that since I was 25 and it turned white after I crossed the Sahara Desert but I am not an ancient relic yet) but when your mind can't think quickly or clearly you can't express yourself or protect yourself and it was only that there were no places at either of these institutions that I was released to go home. The whole experience really shook me, it showed me how easy it was to have control over one's life taken away from you by people who know nothing about you but are determined to act for your own good. It is overwhelming.
I came home and had home help provided by the local council for 6 weeks, these ladies were very kind and helpful but judgemental and I am sure they thought I was weird; I have a robot vacuum cleaner to clean the floors, I use a gizmo which has brushes that spin at high speed to clean the cooker and kitchen work surfaces, I do as little housework as I can a la Quentin Crisp I don't really bother with dusting and I do all my shopping on line. None of them had ever seen a robot vacuum cleaner before or my kitchen gizmo and the idea that I never as one of them said "popped out to the shops" was really strange to them as was my using my pc to write everyday (normal women, especially women as one of them implied who are getting older don't do these things, or live by themselves and never see any family). I was a puzzle they decided to humour but I would love to see the notes they wrote up on each morning visit! Anyway I survived the hospital, the Vikings and the home visitors and the only thing that niggled at me was the fact I had never finished this blog and faced my fear of opening up my mind and how it worked (or didn't) to scrutiny but now the piece is written and if it is woolly and wobbly just blame the dragons gathering lilac in the spring.

Pointless Plans

The government has just announced that it is going to reduce red tape and allow buildings such as loft conversions, extensions and conservatories to be built without planning permission.  Oh, boy, that is a recipe for starting a civil war.  Just think about the hatred some neighbours harbour towards each other, this could be the start of an "arms race" as one neighbour tries to out  build the other in constructing loft conversions which will block out the sun from nextdoors veggie patch while nextdoor erects a conservatory which will interrupt the enemies view from their bathroom window. Planning regulations are there for very sound reasons and rather than this being a measure to kick start the economy (how can a temporary relaxation of the regulations make any improvement to our failing economy?) to me it reeks of a favour to some little crony of Cameron who has been refused permission to build a two storey extension to their duck house and this will allow them to extend their moat without their local parish interfering.

There are thousands of houses and flats standing empty, boarded up, unused and mouldering away which could be made fit for purpose, thereby giving work to local builders and the associated trades which would bring money into the local economy.  This could be funded through grants to housing associations, the money coming from the banks which we, the people own, or if the banks still refuse to lend or distribute the grants use credit unions and local government. 

Again and again I have written about this issue, in my book "Days of Thrift" and in various blogs and every time I have come to the same conclusion that there is no need to build on green belt land, there are huge areas of brown field sites on which to erect affordable housing, just waive the building tax for a period of 10 years on construction that utilises brown fields and you would see the building industry blossom and the families and single people who have been on waiting lists for years waiting for a home while living in cramped squalor in bed and breakfasts and hostels would have homes and new purpose in their lives. The rents from these homes could be used to fund the next wave of house building.  I don't have a degree in economics or town planning but to me its "simples".  When I walk down my High Street I see boarded up shops and flats, the only shops trading are pawn brokers, charity shops and betting shops.  All those empty properties could be refurbished at very little cost compared to building new houses in the green belt because the infrastructure is already in place i.e roads, schools etc. and by having a mixture of residential properties, micro businesses, green technologies and workshops communities would be rebuilt where everyone had a stake in their neighbourhood and felt proud of living there.

Having a place to live isn't a luxury which is only conferred on a fortunate few it is a human right not something to be played with by politicians who have never wanted for anything and think a loft conversion will solve the countries problems.

The Customer Experience Part Three

I was sitting in the Job Centre waiting to sign on, next to me sat a small group of men, they all knew each other and I think from listening to them they had worked together and now they were unemployed together.  One of them began to talk about how hard it was to find money for food, he had two children and a wife - he didn't know how to put food on the table.  Instead of changing the subject and talking about sport or the Olympics each of them agreed and began to talk openly and loudly about their struggles to "make ends meet". I was really surprised to hear the conversation, these weren't women chatting about where to get the best deal or pensioners having a little moan;  these men must have been in their forties, they were politically aware and angry as they discussed various scandals and the huge disparity between rich and poor they got even angrier.  The anger wasn't the kind where furniture was going to be kicked over and the police called, this was bone deep fury at the way the country is heading and how they had to stand up for what was right.  I didn't get to hear the rest of the conversation as I was called to sign my piece of paper with an advisor.

Walking away from the Job Centre I thought about what I had just heard, the same things are being said all across Europe, all across Africa, the Middle East, across the world and I compared their words with the speech I heard Melvin King, the Governor of the Bank of England give a few days ago announcing another down grading of our prospects - he tried to blame the Eurozone for the UK's poor export figures (this is the newest magic mushroom George Osborne has been cultivating - that great export figures are going to pull the UK out of the Depression) but that is not true, the UK exported more to Europe than the rest of the world.  Exports to the rest of the world fell by 9.6% whereas exports to the Eurozone fell by 7.6%. These aren't great figures and our economy has flatlined with zero growth which according to Melvin who looked like a deer caught in the headlights, could go on for years and then there is the matter of the largest deficit for 15 years.  Sorry to use so many figures, I find my own mind goes walkies when I start writing about it but that is what Melvin and all the feral rich want that it gets too much for us ordinary people to think about so we give up, well, we can't give up.  To put it in real terms just a few weeks ago 806 people applied for one job in my town, that's our reality.  The policy of removing real jobs from our society, making more and more people unemployed and thinking that somehow the private sector would produce new jobs to replace all the ones destroyed is lunacy.  In Buddhism there is a wonderful phrase about a person who is deluded by greed, anger and ignorance and they are like someone in a burning house which is coming down around their ears but they think they are at a fabulour celebrity party which will never end.  I think we are standing in the burning building but we can put the fire out.

I have written about growing our own vegetables and fruit, all the different ways you can do that on allotments, in back gardens, on top of blocks of flats and in window boxes, I wrote an earlier blog called "ABC" to try and make suggestions to augment our diets and keep down the cost of what we spend on food.  With food prices set to soar we have to act for ourselves.  Why do I say food is going to be more expensive?  The terrible weather conditions being experienced all over the world mean crops have been destroyed especially wheat (Australia's huge flood devastated its wheat crops, America has a terrible drought right across the fertile heart land hitting the wheat and corn harvests, Filopino floods, floods in China) you could say well, I don't eat much bread and I never eat Nan or Pitta bread so this doesn't affect me but it does - cake, scones, Yorkshire pudding, Toad in the Hole and Eccles cakes and finally add in the toxic component of food price speculation.  You get food riots, the riots last year across the country which were sparked by a murder were partly food riots (but we don't talk about that) instability, governments will fall and have already fallen in Haiti Egypt, Tunisia and other countries involved in the "Arab Spring" to name but a few and I haven't mentioned Africa.

What can we do, grow our own food, as much as possible, even one crop of tomatoes is one less to pay for and petition our government and the Labour Party to use the United Nations to outlaw food price speculation, let those huge cartels and multi nationals gamble with other commodities not food.

Finally, stop blaming other countries for George Osborne's ideology which is bringing us to the point of collapse.  We must lobby our elected members to force them to enact tax reform, change the policy which gives tax cuts to the feral rich, penalises the poorest, least able in our society and make them see they are living in a burning building and they are throwing petrol on the flames.

Breaking News

I would love it if one morning I turned on the news and heard a bulletin which went like this:  "Early this morning an Israeli battalion of hardened irrigation engineers stormed into the Gaza Strip, their spokesman said "We have only one mission, we are here and we are going to stay here until we have set up irrigation systems and built a couple of dams to support the crops these people grow".  Meanwhile, in Somalia the "International Brigade" of teachers supported by builders with earth movers have just finished building their twentieth school and classes have begun for the children of the twenty areas this action involves... We can go across live to our reporter who is embedded with a platoon of "Queens Own Highlanders", these brave soldiers parachuted into Helman Province, Afghanistan carrying solar panels which will be installed in isolated villages which have no electricity"..

If I heard that kind of bulletin I would think I had died and passed over.  Now, I enjoyed writing that silly paragraph and you can say it's a load of cracked ideas but I wonder.  The reason I wrote it was as an antidote to the London visit of Mitt Romney and his "World Tour of Trouble Making" and all the other war mongers who move around the world trying to resurrect the Cold War, protected by their wealth from the consequences of their actions.  When I had been thinking about Romney it occurred to me that actually we don't live in a world you can make old constructs come back to life.  If you just look at your own life;  I have friends on Facebook from all over the place, I support peaceful projects in lots of different countries, we Twitter to people all over the world and don't forget e-mail, sign petitions which do make a difference, read blogs, build dialogues through our comments and everything is instantaneous (or nearly, if you used my computer some mornings you would doubt that).  This virtual society is happening all over the world, it is what has partly triggered the "Arab Spring", the "Orange Revolution" and all the other movements for change.  Of course there are wars and atrocities, man made disasters and horrors but it seems to me that there are a lot of very brave (and you do have to be brave to light a candle in the dark), decent, honourable people working to stop the wars, mediate in the middle of the suffering, change our splintered societies into one global society.  Our technology has already made this happen in the virtual world.  I really do look forward to the day the virtual and the real worlds merge and the news presenter says "Yesterday, in the Hague, a peace treaty was signed between the two last combatants in the last war.  Today is the first day of peace"..

Vlad in a Box

Vladmir Putin was born a year later than me in 1952 but having seen him on his recent visit to Number 10 for a talk with David Cameron I must say he looks at least 30 years older than I do.  That seems quite an unpleasant judgement to make, people can't help how they age.  I always thought he looked like "Dobby the House Elf" from the "Harry Potter" books now his face lift or use of botox (no one can have such an unlined face without botox) has destroyed his features and makes me think of a badly made wax work model and as well as his waxen face he is shorter than David Cameron which means President Obama towers over him as well.  Why am I making so many disparaging personal remarks?  He is, in my opinion, paranoid, vain, very angry and the President of Russia.

When he became President in 2000 he brought in a lot of really good reforms which improved the lives of the Russian people, stablised the economy and got rid of a lot of corruption from the old regime of Boris Yeltsin but since he has been relected as President for a second term, in rigged elections things have changed and not for the better.  He has passed new laws which criminalize defamation, fine protesters at unauthorised demonstrations £6,000 and blacklist "harmful" internet sites.  He also has what you can only call his own "Hitler Youth Movement" an aggressive, racist, ignorant army of young people who idolise Putin and happily harrass anyone Putin doesn't like, including the British Ambassador.  Now, Putin didn't just get out of bed one morning and think I hate the West, I hate all journalists and whistleblowers I know what I'll do I'll pass laws to destroy them.  He really believes that the borders of Russia are being weakened especially when the withdrawal from Afghanistan takes place in 2014 and to that end he has ordered the building of a huge new military base to "monitor" events in Afghanistan, this has provoked demonstrations by local residents who don't want the army bringing trouble to their door.   I watched some footage of Putin holding a meeting with his Generals where he sneered that America should stay in Afghanistan and go on fighting, is he thinking of starting a second war with Afghanistan in 2014 because he can't see any other way of protecting his country and his prestige?  This is the reason Russian supports the Syrian regime he is convinced that if Syria falls Russia will be next.  The spectre of all the other dictators who have been deposed - Gaddafi, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein must always be in his mind. Putin knows the Russian economy is struggling;  gas and oil prices are falling and corruption is rife, "Wikileaks" said the American view of Russia was that it was a mafia state so guess who's the "Godfather".  When the economy starts to fail, people start to ask questions and recently he is being challenged by an educated very large and vocal opposition while he thinks Russia is becoming effete and decadent like the West and only draconian laws and punishment will control the mob.  To me this is paranoia and watching his body language at the meeting with David Cameron he is very angry and full of loathing.  So, all these thoughts are pushing him into a box that keeps shrinking in size.  When you are so angry and paranoid you can't imagine a differnt route except to repress opposition and dissent, he can't imagine having prestige and being respected without being an aggressive bully.

I can imagine a different way - repeal the new laws, release Alexei Navalny  and "Pussy Riot" with a symbolic fine of one rouble, go on tv and talk to the nation laying out democratic reforms, support green industry, embark on new measures to help AIDS sufferers, institute a nationwide
system of swapping used syringes for clean needles and deal with the huge alcohol and drugs problem especially heroin and "krocodil" use.  Then he and Russia will get the respect and admiration he longs for.