Monday, 29 August 2011

Storm, Damages and... Leaves

It was in the midst of a short conversation, with a particular Twitter friend and very capable poet (Twitter ID @Fumanchucat), who lives in New York. Hurricane Irene was blowing its way up the East coast and heading for the big city creating an undercurrent of fear and trepidation in the minds of everyone there. This was such that evacuation plans were being made in preparation for the expected structural damage and the flooding that would follow the high winds.

Rather randomly, if you'll pardon the momentary distraction from the theme of this post, it's title gives a passing nod to the title of a book in our possession, which represents a significant contribution to the art of punctuation. "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" is informative, amusing and recommended for anyone who has an aspiration for writing properly punctuated English language.

Anyway, this Twitter conversation! It went as follows: -

Fumanchucat: "Hurricane update: Boring! Y A W N..."

Poetjanstie: "What! No armageddon, no deafening fury of satanic proportions, no blood-curdling screams for mercy, no flying cars...!?"

Fumanchucat: "Irene is one boring chick, lemme tell ya'.."

Poetjanstie: "Isn't there even a slight breeze?"

Fumanchucat: "Some leaves are putting on a show but no shake, rattle and roll"

I imagine, if she'll forgive me for saying this, that she is one dour, but very erudite New Yorker, whose feathers don't get ruffled easily! She makes me smile and sometimes laugh and writes some pretty damn good poetry to boot, which you can find here.

That phrase "Some leaves are putting on a show..." immediately stuck and I suggested that it looked like the makings of a poem, thinking that she might take it up, but all she said in reply to that was "Go, John, go!". Now either she was telling me to push off, or that I should write the poem. I prefer to think it was the latter, so I did that!

In spite of the tongue-in-cheek light-hearted nature of this poem, my thoughts still remain now and for the coming days and weeks with the families of anyone who was lost in the wake of this powerful storm and for the immense damage it wreaked on its journey.

So, this poem is not only for Lady Fumanchu, who is responsible for inspiring it, but also for our other particular friend, writer and poet, Joe Hesch (Twitter ID @JAHesch), who kept up a running commentary of the storm's slightly more damaging passage through his neck of the woods, a little way further out of New York, in Albany.

Above all, we and I'm sure they are grateful the storm didn't do as much damage as was originally predicted, which brings me neatly to the point of the poem.


Some leaves are putting on a pretty show
They said we have to expect a maelstrom soon
an armageddon to blow away the moon
And telling us to pack our bags and go.

We waited long and into wee small hours,
our lives to change, last minutes in our wills.
The fear and dread is palpable, and fills
imaginations with dreams of satanic powers.

Meanwhile the leaves, with neighbours unaware,
are whipping up excitement on the lawn
as foliage twists into a dancing fawn;
a largely missed delight, 'cause no-one's there.

But, somehow, when all is said and done
as lawyers sharpened pencils to prepare
for claims and litigation... nightmare!
the weather's playing games and having fun!

Instead of blowing gales, disaster trails,
it whispered to the trees and leaves "don't worry…
we'll have some fun with just a little flurry”.
So leaves put on a show; there were no rales.

© 2011 John Anstie

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Twenty Nine... Too Young to Die

(Remembering Sergeant Ian McKay VC)

My son turned twenty nine this year. So too did his best friend and namesake, who is currently serving with the RAF on a four month tour of the Falklands.

I was writing an e-Bluey to my son's friend (that is the modern digital means of communicating with service men and women, around the world, by that organisation known as the BFPO - British Forces Post Office). In this I had written some news and inserted the first of my two articles on the London riots, "London's Burning...". Whilst I was writing this e-Bluey, I remembered an event that led to a young Army Sergeant sacrificing his life to save others in the battle for Mount Longdon on 11th/12th June 1982. His heroic deed that night lead to his being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross; the highest military award for gallantry. This very moving story is told here.

The fact that I worked for a few years with his younger brother, and therefore came to hear about Ian's fate through him, makes this story resonate more powerfully; as does the fact that my son and his best friend this year turned twenty-nine years of age, the same age that Ian McKay was when he died. That the Falklands war, short as it was, began and ended twenty-nine years ago is coincidental, albeit a little spooky. So at the time of Ian McKay's death, the Falklands war was at its height and shortly after came to a conclusion. For the two and a half months of its duration from April to June of that year, it almost completely took over the news.

This combination of facts, feelings and memories are responsible for the poem, which, I think was accompanied by more than my usual degree of feeling on the subject. I still find it hard to read without choking a little, even when I was still focussed on constructing it.

For poets, who may be interested, the poetic structure and rhyming scheme were chosen deliberately, being strongly influenced by Alfred Lord Tennyson's epic elegy "In Memoriam A.H.H.", which was written in four line stanzas, with a rhyming scheme ABBA, throughout its length. Incidentally, "In Memoriam" comprised of one hundred and thirty-three separate sections, each of which contained anything from three to thirty stanzas; well over two thousand lines; phenomenal! Whilst we are in the mood for coinciding numbers, it has to be said, the seventeen stanzas in my poem took less than seventeen hours to write, but, whilst it is neat, it is not associated with the seventeen years it took Alfred Lord Tennyson to complete "In Memoriam", which was published in 1850.

The title of my poem chose itself before I started writing it. It was originally "At Twenty Nine", reflecting the age Ian McKay was at the time of his death. I shortened it because it had a better feel that way.

I hope you enjoy reading the poem, "Twenty Nine".

Thursday, 11 August 2011

London's Burning... Part Two

This is really a follow-on from the end of my last post, "London's Burning... What Can We Do", but is also spurred somewhat by a conversation about who is responsible for this mess we are in; the state of the country's economy. This conversation has been going on over on Facebook. It was getting a bit political, so, since this article was already germinating in my mind as I was completing the last one, I thought that I might as well put this out now to clarify my thoughts and convictions on the subject of the responsibility of individuals for their own actions.

I would preface this by saying, that, wherever and under whatever circumstances prevail when we are brought into this world, when we are old enough, reach the age of majority or simply arrive at a point where we are capable of doing so, we must take the first steps that enable us to become responsible for our own lives and become accountable for our actions, so that we can not only fit into our community, but also contribute to it.

In the same way, this means that we are responsible for our own economies, that is our personal finances; making provision for hard times is part of that, rather like a farmer stows hay in the barn to see his cattle through a bleak winter. Whatever the conditions out there, whatever the state of the country's finances, we have the power to resist the temptations of consumerism and to cut our coat according to the cloth we have. Most politicians, whatever their political colour, with a few exceptions have always and will always be guided in varying proportions by three things: their personal ambitions, the party line and corporate sponsorship; listening to the electorate is the last thing on their agenda.

It is within the power of most individuals in the affluent, developed and 'free' world, to live well and securely - far, far better than a majority of the world's population in the third world. The exceptions to this are those who are genuinely incapable of coping, of taking control of their lives, because of the way they are wired, through physical or mental disability or some other predisposition, which does require the support of a caring welfare system; and I have for most of my adult life held a conviction that, however much of our infrastructure is in private hands, we must always be able to provide school education and health systems, that are free to all, funded by National Insurance.

The trouble is, for the capable majority, that we don't exercise our free will to manage our lives; we act like sheep, greedy sheep. We run up a burden of personal debt, in pursuit of materialistic self-improvement, chasing a kind of mock celebrity status or some misguided notion that 'success' is expressed by the size of your house, by the size and specification of the four-wheel drive you park in front of it, by the designer clothes you wear and by how exotic the location of your holiday destination.

But what happens for too many of us is that we end up financially far worse off than we should be. This is all well and good whilst the going's good, whilst the economy is 'flourishing', but when the bubble bursts, as it always will in these conditions, and times get hard like they are right now, all we tend to do is complain that it's the fault of whoever's in power, or somebody else; anybody is to blame but ourselves. This is the crux of it: individual responsibility, taking control of our own lives, by harnessing the power of our own will, given the solidarity of family and community. Perish the thought that one day we are no longer able or permitted to exercise this freedom. And let's not kid ourselves that we have a divine or enduring right to this freedom; we have to earn it by taking responsibility, making ourselves, first and foremost, accountable for our actions. Then and only then will we be qualified to comment and contribute to an improvement in the lot of others.

For those that want to judge me, or anybody for that fact, to categorise me in some neat political pigeonhole, I would say simply this. Never judge, keep an open mind and nurture common sense. Don't be hidebound by a party line; don't be a sheep and be a member of a 'gang', just for the sake of 'belonging'; be a thinker. But, above all ensure that you show respect for your fellow man or woman; do not be anti-social by word or deed; and honour the principle espoused by John Stuart Mill almost two hundred years ago. I have been mindful of his philosophy for all of my adult life... and I'm still trying to hold to it.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning... What can We Do?

I am this morning almost lost for words; not a normal state of affairs if my usual lengthy diatribes are anything to go by.

Courtesy of the BBC
It's worrying that I can't look stupefied; I can't remonstrate; but what is still more worrying is that I don't even feel desperately angry... no, that's not true, I am angry... but I'm not feeling any passion about it all right now; just numb, overwhelmingly numb! So bear with me while I try to sort this out in my head.

Perhaps this is because we've seen it all before, in my lifetime during the early eighties, when another Conservative government had to put in place measures that were designed to pull in the purse strings, following a period in the seventies of economic melt down. I know so many people, the vast majority of us in fact, who have not been anywhere near the dystopia of our burning city streets over the last three terrible days, will have felt by turns angry, disgusted and dismayed over the antisocial and violent behaviour seen on our television screens and will continue to do so this morning, particularly since we've been struck by the breakfast news of the worsening images of the infernos making London look like it's been hit by another blitz, now spreading, as it has, to the hot spots of other cities, Birmingham and Bristol. Where next? As I write it is already spreading to more places around the country.

Part of what I wrote in the post I published at the end of June, "Politics, Treachery and... a beautiful Rose" has, this week, been resonating with me even more powerfully than it was when I wrote it. Specifically, this concerned the ability of humanity to maintain civilised behaviour, maintaining discipline, even in the face of adversity; something, for example, which has made our armed forces the envy of the world; and it's about the inability of some humans - sometimes - to be anything other than the basic creatures we fundamentally are - wild animals! Now, I don't mean to offend animal lovers here; quite the opposite, in fact! Animals, both domesticated and wild, all have an essential place in this great big beautiful environmental mishmash we call earth, our world. The domestic ones are animals that, when young, have to be given a basic discipline, rather like children, which they carry with them throughout their lives, so that they, and we, can benefit from the mutually convenient relationship or companionship that thereby develops.

Courtesy of the BBC
However, the similarity between animals and human children ends when the latter reach an age when they become capable of expressing free will and can be educated to realise they have the ability for self determination, but when, most important of all, they become able to learn self control, mental discipline; in other words, given that they are helped and encouraged, when they nurture, develop and strengthen those safety valves that allow us to say no; to draw back from stealing something when we think we are not being watched; that prevents us from hitting the person who seriously offends us, or even assaults us - at least beyond what is reasonable defence of self, family and property; and the self control that stops us from killing another person, however provoked or irrationally enraged we may be in the moment.

But... but, we are all wired differently and each one of us has a different perception of reality, however slight, but different nonetheless. Before those of us, who have been privileged enough to lead reasonably normal lives with a reasonable education and upbringing - however imperfect we may sometimes think that our lives are and how hard done to we may feel - before we utter our complaints and shout "lock 'em up and throw away the key", let us be sure we are certain there is no solution. There are always going to be reasons for individual bad behaviour, which we can attempt to address on an individual basis. The trouble comes when lots of those badly behaved individuals get together, aided and abetted no doubt by some, shall we say, not so underprivileged individuals, the organisers, the result of which we have seen this week. I suspect that each of these individuals would have a story to tell, of woe, of drug-addicted parents, of no parents, of uncaring homes, of an atmosphere of dereliction and degradation of hope. There will also be a lot of youthful hangers on, on the verge of adulthood but who don't know better, following like sheep, trying to impress, to prove they are qualified as cool, budding thugs.

So logically, there will always be human beings, who have not been taught this essential discipline of self-control, of civilised behaviour, or who may be psychologically incapable of that essential skill of self regulation, and who will therefore snap at the slightest provocation, who will sometimes become criminalised as a result and who make up a number of those rampaging, looting and burning in the streets this week.

In the coming weeks and months, as the streets and the mess are cleared up - and let's hope to God this is very soon - there will no doubt be plenty of allegations of police brutality, of injustice and pleas of mitigation for the few who got caught and charged with various offences and affray. There will be so much of the usual time wasting, defensive and political claptrap, thrown between parties and organisations caught in the fray, and much more cost to the taxpayer. But, when all is said and done, those who have taken to the streets will, and indeed must pay the penal price appropriate to the crimes they have committed. But I ask now, who will be able to tackle the causes of this human mess..?

I can tell you, it won't be the government, not any government, inspite of vast quantities of inquiries and reports - e.g. Scarman in 1981 - has ever or will ever be capable of dealing with the causes; they are just too big a deal, too much of a threat to the winning and retention of electoral votes. No, there is only one solution...

Courtesy of the BBC
...and no, it is not to jump ship, run away from the problem or bury our heads in the sand!

It is down to us: parents, families, communities. We are the glue that builds a nation; call it the "Big Society" if you want; I personally don't like that phrase - probably because it came from the mouth of a pompous, patronising politician (love the alliteration :-)). Somehow, we, the people, have to rise above all this, stop complaining, whinging, whining, talking about it all the time and blaming someone else for our lot; we need to gird our loins, start thinking carefully about and debating the issues, actually do something, get involved, in however small a way, start showing more interest in the future of our civilised society, and less in our 'selves'. Otherwise, we will dissolve into an even greater uncivilised quagmire, because, as it stands, these problems are not going away any time soon.

If you think this is a criticism of you, then it probably is. I know it is certainly a criticism of myself, because I know I could do more and by God I will try, somehow!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Life on Earth, Bayesian Analysis... and the Harmonious Distribution of Raw Materials

"The solution to the problems of the world lies in harmony with the distribution of raw materials
- Jack Parnell, my memorable, flamboyant, poetic and possibly prophetic geography teacher, and a lesson I have never forgotten.

After school, I went on to be educated and trained as a scientist and engineer and have huge respect for the achievement of innovative thinkers, inventive scientists and industrious engineers the world over, whose endeavours have lead to vast improvements in both our physical and material wellbeing, achievements, the shear genius of which are unappreciated by most of us. Although, for the last twenty five years of my working life, I have not applied my scientific training in a professional capacity, it remains ingrained in my thinking and, as a result, in solving a problem I will always attempt a logical, scientific or engineering approach to it. 

Regardless of what I am about to espouse, I do retain a fascination with all things, which relate to the cosmos, to the big 'out there', to the universe in all its amazing and mysterious glory. But there are more pressing matters that we need to deal with.

With regard to space exploration, the universe and particularly the prospect of finding extraterrestrial life, I personally believe that, however long we humans exist on planet earth, we will never find life in another part of even our own galaxy, let alone the universe as a whole. However tantalising the prospect of ET life, but sad the thought that we might be on our own, I think we will never find other life or fully understand the universe itself, simply by virtue of our inability to do what is essential in any science, physically to observe what's going on. We cannot do this in the farthest reaches of space. The development of advanced equipment and the progress we have made in Quantum Physics to our understanding of the structure of the universe, is but a drop in the ocean of cosmological complexity.

The laws of probability dictate that there is always an element of uncertainty about the results of any test of scientific thesis or the results of its research; nothing is ever one hundred percent certain. Our continuing quest to search for life out there and our endeavours to solve this riddle of the universe is admirable, but in the final analysis, it is nothing if not escapism... we are running away from the deeply serious challenges that we face on this planet!

Call me a bore, if you like, I don't mind, but I do have a passionate feeling about and fear for life here on this great big beautiful, diverse but troubled world of ours.

I therefore believe that, instead of wasting so much of our time and resource chasing dreams in outer space, we should apply all our resourcefulness, brilliance, invention and innovative ability, as well as courage, to solving the problems we have here on earth: and these problems, it strikes me, are primarily concerned with the distribution of its raw materials in relation to its populations; in other words, feeding ourselves effectively and keeping ourselves warm (or cool). We also need to find some way of resolving a paradox, which is rooted in the enduring ability humans have had throughout our history, for the inequitable distribution of its assets, but none more so than those that are 'unearned'; that have been acquired by less than equitable means, by tyranny, by invasion of physical as well as economic territory, the criminal abuse of power and privilege.

I know my comments may seem to be unhelpful - not to say political - considering the honest, scientific nature of the article that prompted this post, but note: this is not an attack on that article or any other scientific research, in particular. What I am afraid of is that we are losing site of the endeavour, with which the human race needs to engage, with unfettered enthusiasm, courage and great, great urgency, before it becomes too late for us to tackle. 

The big question remains: who has the courage to start this debate and who will initiate action? Someone with the influence and power to do so; someone who will also not allow their power, privilege and influence to affect their motivation in addressing some of the more political issues of the inequitable distribution of the world's assets ... a paradox indeed, but one from which we must not shy for too much longer.


This post was prompted by an article, pointed to by Jack Eason (@Akhen1Khan2 on Twitter) entitled "Astronomy Without a Telescope - The Unlikeliness of Being" recently referenced by the 'Bar None Group Daily'. The article itself can be seen here. This post is an extended version of a comment, multiple comments in fact, that I made on that article.