As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.
Cardinal J. H. Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University, 1852

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Don't write off alternative medicine.

The New Scientist says "Why the medicine your take could actually be bad for your health" (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist 30/11/2019 pp34-39. Online, behind a paywall).

There are multiple problems. Drug approval by the authorities in the US and Europe is being fast-tracked without proper testing and once drugs are on the market they are being prescribed for things that they weren't intended for. The pressure, of course, comes from the pharmaceutical industry ("follow the money").

Doctors prescribe drugs even if they don't know whether they are effective "because they want to do something rather than nothing". That is understandable and it would be hard to criticise doctors for doing it. They are prescribing hope. Surely it is better to than saying 'sorry, there's nothing I can do about it'. And there remains the placebo effect: it might still do some good even if there's no physical mechanism for it to help.

But if you are prescribing hope through the placebo effect, surely you could use something other than an expensive drug that might have harmful side-effects? You can't just prescribe a sweetie and say 'this might help you through the placebo effect': there has to be something that allows both the doctor and the patient to believe that the drug will work. So why not complementary and alternative medicine? Herbs, meditation, and even homeopathy?

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan must be one of the most familiar of Jesus's parables, and the term 'good Samaritan' or even just 'Samaritan' has entered the language for someone helping a stranger, recognised even by those with no knowledge of the bible. Probing the parable more closely, however, uncovers some rather more challenging insights.

To be a 'good Samaritan' in everyday parlance is to help someone you don't know, simply because they need help. Let's call this the Level 1 interpretation of the parable.

Most sermons on the parable will go further, pointing to the fact that Samaritans were despised 'others' in the eyes of the Jews at the time of the New Testament, and that the message of the parable is to emphasise helping those who are different from us: helping the 'Other'. Witness, for example, the 2020 New Year address by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

When we hear someone described as a Good Samaritan, we think about that person taking the time to help another. But it’s also a story told by Jesus about someone taking the risk of reaching out to another who was very different to them. Yes, the person needed help – but they also needed connection.

This, reaching out to, connecting with and helping, the Other, is the Level 2 interpretation of the parable, but it still misses an important message.

For the Level 3 interpretation we need to notice that it was the Samaritan helping the Jew, not the other way around. The parable was addressed to Jews, so it wasn't saying “you should help the Other”, it was saying “you need the help of the Other”. That was, and is, much more revolutionary.

Helping someone implies a power relationship. The helper has the power: the helped is powerless (that's why they need help). Charity is done by those in control, and to suggest that it was the Samaritan dispensing the charity was to question the status of the Jew, denying the superiority of the Jew over the Samaritan. To appreciate the impact of the parable on the original audience we would need to be able to put ourselves into the minds of 1st Century Jews. Alternatively we can rewrite the parable to set it in the here and now.

In 21st Century Britain Christianity is the dominant (hegemonic) religion so our reformulated parable will be addressed to Christians. It will have a Christian attacked by robbers and it will be a Christian priest and, say, a Church Warden passing by on the other side of the road. The helper, the 'Samaritan', needs more thought. It will be someone we Christians might not respect: someone we think needs our help rather than someone that comes to our aid. Or someone we don't want to be in debt to: someone we want to keep at a distance. Someone we don't want to respect. Who might that be? I suggest that you spend some time thinking about who that might be for you, but candidates might include, for example, Muslims, asylum seekers, rough-sleepers, Irish or Romany Travellers. In my attempt at a rewriting the parable at the end of this article, I have made the rescuer a Muslim because it seems to me that at the moment a lot of people in England would rather not respect Muslims.

The move from the Level 1 to Level 2 interpretation of the parable is challenging, but not threatening. Helping someone very different from us might take courage, as the Archbishop suggests, but in the end it doesn't – by itself – change anything. Even worse, charity can reinforce injustice and inequality. Welby suggests helping at a foodbank. Certainly foodbanks are tragically needed in 2020 and volunteering in any way is to be encouraged. But if we, the secure and comfortable, just stop the Others from starving it allows the status quo to continue. For the ethics of levels 1 and 2 that's fine, so long as we didn't pass by on the other side.

Something completely different emerges from the Level 3 interpretation. It's not denying the insights of Levels 1 and 2 – there's no getting away from the final verse in which Jesus said “Go and do likewise”. But in questioning the established order it is a revolutionary interpretation and threatens the hegemony of, in our case, the Christian church.

It is not surprising that the Archbishop of Canterbury stops at Level 2.

The parable of the Good Muslim, 

The parable of the Good Samaritan for a 21st century Western Christian audience

Just then an Oxford theologian stood up to test Jesus.‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the bible? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Oxford to Canterbury, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Church Warden, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Muslim on his way to the Mosque came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having treated them with an antiseptic and soothing cream . Then he put him in caravan, brought him to a pub, and took care of him. The next day he took out fifty pounds, gave it to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Monday, November 4, 2019

Christians should vote Labour

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed". Luke 4:18, and a pretty good summary of Labour Party policy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The tree that killed John South

Extracted from The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy 

(Text taken from Project Gutenberg:, but US spelling corrected)

[Marty South] gently approached a bedroom, and without entering, said, "Father, do you want anything?"

A weak voice inside answered in the negative; adding, "I should be all right by to-morrow if it were not for the tree!"

"The tree again—always the tree! Oh, father, don't worry so about that. You know it can do you no harm."

[…]  the tree will do it—that tree will soon be the death of me."

"Nonsense, you know better. How can it be?" She refrained from further speech, and descended to the ground-floor again.

[…] Giles [Winterborne] asked, with some hesitation, how her father was getting on.

He was better, she said; he would be able to work in a day or two; he would be quite well but for his craze about the tree falling on him.

[…]"Father is still so much troubled in his mind about that tree," she said. "You know the tree I mean, Mr. Winterborne? the tall one in front of the house, that he thinks will blow down and kill us. Can you come and see if you can persuade him out of his notion? I can do nothing."

He accompanied her to the cottage, and she conducted him upstairs. John South was pillowed up in a chair between the bed and the window exactly opposite the latter, towards which his face was turned.

"Ah, neighbour Winterborne," he said. "I wouldn't have minded if my life had only been my own to lose; I don't vallie it in much of itself, and can let it go if 'tis required of me. But to think what 'tis worth to you, a young man rising in life, that do trouble me! It seems a trick of dishonesty towards ye to go off at fifty-five! I could bear up, I know I could, if it were not for the tree—yes, the tree, 'tis that's killing me. There he stands, threatening my life every minute that the wind do blow. He'll come down upon us and squat us dead; and what will ye do when the life on your property is taken away?"
"Never you mind me—that's of no consequence," said Giles. "Think of yourself alone."

He looked out of the window in the direction of the woodman's gaze. The tree was a tall elm, familiar to him from childhood, which stood at a distance of two-thirds its own height from the front of South's dwelling. Whenever the wind blew, as it did now, the tree rocked, naturally enough; and the sight of its motion and sound of its sighs had gradually bred the terrifying illusion in the woodman's mind that it would descend and kill him. Thus he would sit all day, in spite of persuasion, watching its every sway, and listening to the melancholy Gregorian melodies which the air wrung out of it. This fear it apparently was, rather than any organic disease which was eating away the health of John South.

As the tree waved, South waved his head, making it his flugel-man with abject obedience. "Ah, when it was quite a small tree," he said, "and I was a little boy, I thought one day of chopping it off with my hook to make a clothes-line prop with. But I put off doing it, and then I again thought that I would; but I forgot it, and didn't. And at last it got too big, and now 'tis my enemy, and will be the death o' me. Little did I think, when I let that sapling stay, that a time would come when it would torment me, and dash me into my grave."

"No, no," said Winterborne and Marty, soothingly. But they thought it possible that it might hasten him into his grave, though in another way than by falling.

"I tell you what," added Winterborne, "I'll climb up this afternoon and shroud off the lower boughs, and then it won't be so heavy, and the wind won't affect it so."

"She won't allow it—a strange woman come from nobody knows where—she won't have it done."

"You mean Mrs. Charmond? Oh, she doesn't know there's such a tree on her estate. Besides, shrouding is not felling, and I'll risk that much."

He went out, and when afternoon came he returned, took a billhook from the woodman's shed, and with a ladder climbed into the lower part of the tree, where he began lopping off—"shrouding," as they called it at Hintock—the lowest boughs. Each of these quivered under his attack, bent, cracked, and fell into the hedge. Having cut away the lowest tier, he stepped off the ladder, climbed a few steps higher, and attacked those at the next level. Thus he ascended with the progress of his work far above the top of the ladder, cutting away his perches as he went, and leaving nothing but a bare stem below him.

The work was troublesome, for the tree was large. The afternoon wore on, turning dark and misty about four o'clock. From time to time Giles cast his eyes across towards the bedroom window of South, where, by the flickering fire in the chamber, he could see the old man watching him, sitting motionless with a hand upon each arm of the chair. Beside him sat Marty, also straining her eyes towards the skyey field of his operations.

A curious question suddenly occurred to Winterborne, and he stopped his chopping. He was operating on another person's property to prolong the years of a lease by whose termination that person would considerably benefit. In that aspect of the case he doubted if he ought to go on. On the other hand he was working to save a man's life, and this seemed to empower him to adopt arbitrary measures.

[…] [Winterborne decided] he would run up to South's, as he had intended to do, to learn the result of the experiment with the tree.

Marty met him at the door. "Well, Marty," he said; and was surprised to read in her face that the case was not so hopeful as he had imagined.

"I am sorry for your labour," she said. "It is all lost. He says the tree seems taller than ever."
Winterborne looked round at it. Taller the tree certainly did seem, the gauntness of its now naked stem being more marked than before.

"It quite terrified him when he first saw what you had done to it this morning," she added. "He declares it will come down upon us and cleave us, like 'the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.'"
"Well; can I do anything else?" asked he.

"The doctor says the tree ought to be cut down."

"Oh—you've had the doctor?"

"I didn't send for him Mrs. Charmond, before she left, heard that father was ill, and told him to attend him at her expense."

"That was very good of her. And he says it ought to be cut down. We mustn't cut it down without her knowledge, I suppose."

He went up-stairs. There the old man sat, staring at the now gaunt tree as if his gaze were frozen on to its trunk. Unluckily the tree waved afresh by this time, a wind having sprung up and blown the fog away, and his eyes turned with its wavings.

[…] "This is an extraordinary case," [Doctor Fitzpiers said] to Winterborne, after examining South by conversation, look, and touch, and learning that the craze about the elm was stronger than ever. "Come down-stairs, and I'll tell you what I think."

They accordingly descended, and the doctor continued, "The tree must be cut down, or I won't answer for his life."

"'Tis Mrs. Charmond's tree, and I suppose we must get permission?" said Giles. "If so, as she is gone away, I must speak to her agent."

"Oh—never mind whose tree it is—what's a tree beside a life! Cut it down. I have not the honour of knowing Mrs. Charmond as yet, but I am disposed to risk that much with her."

"'Tis timber," rejoined Giles, more scrupulous than he would have been had not his own interests stood so closely involved. "They'll never fell a stick about here without it being marked first, either by her or the agent."

"Then we'll inaugurate a new era forthwith. How long has he complained of the tree?" asked the doctor of Marty.

"Weeks and weeks, sir. The shape of it seems to haunt him like an evil spirit. He says that it is exactly his own age, that it has got human sense, and sprouted up when he was born on purpose to rule him, and keep him as its slave. Others have been like it afore in Hintock."

They could hear South's voice up-stairs "Oh, he's rocking this way; he must come! And then my poor life, that's worth houses upon houses, will be squashed out o' me. Oh! oh!"

"That's how he goes on," she added. "And he'll never look anywhere else but out of the window, and scarcely have the curtains drawn."

"Down with it, then, and hang Mrs. Charmond," said Mr. Fitzpiers. "The best plan will be to wait till the evening, when it is dark, or early in the morning before he is awake, so that he doesn't see it fall, for that would terrify him worse than ever. Keep the blind down till I come, and then I'll assure him, and show him that his trouble is over."

[…] As soon as it was broad daylight the doctor came, and Winterborne entered the house with him. Marty said that her father was wrapped up and ready, as usual, to be put into his chair. They ascended the stairs, and soon seated him. He began at once to complain of the tree, and the danger to his life and Winterborne's house-property in consequence.

The doctor signalled to Giles, who went and drew back the printed cotton curtains. "'Tis gone, see," said Mr. Fitzpiers.

As soon as the old man saw the vacant patch of sky in place of the branched column so familiar to his gaze, he sprang up, speechless, his eyes rose from their hollows till the whites showed all round; he fell back, and a bluish whiteness overspread him.

Greatly alarmed, they put him on the bed. As soon as he came a little out of his fit, he gasped, "Oh, it is gone!—where?—where?"

His whole system seemed paralyzed by amazement. They were thunder-struck at the result of the experiment, and did all they could. Nothing seemed to avail. Giles and Fitzpiers went and came, but uselessly. He lingered through the day, and died that evening as the sun went down.

"D—d if my remedy hasn't killed him!" murmured the doctor.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The heel of God

FA cup match against AFC Wimbledon, 2nd December 2012. Jon Otsemobor's goal will live in the legends of MK Dons forever. The fans have dubbed it 'the heel of God'.

Sadly, while I was there and in theory in a good position to see it, such is my slow brain that I didn't spot what he did at the time. I thought we just got a lucky bounce! Seeing it on the telly, or the ITV website, though, it is quite sublime. He's casually walking away from the goal and the ball comes down behind him. A nonchalant flick of his heel and it's in the net.

 PS  I wonder what that AFCW fan is saying, 44 seconds into this clip :-)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Following MK Dons has helped me empathize with AFCW fans

Before Wimbledon landed on my doorstep in Milton Keynes, I was largely an armchair follower of football. I had taken my two young sons to Anfield a few times, but that was never going to be viable, on cost or time grounds, but after going to watch the team 3 miles away (OK, not quite my doorstep) I, we all, were gradually drawn in. And now, eight years on, we're hooked: season tickets and away whenever we can.

One of the MK Dons fans on a one our forums got in a strop when we recently drew against Cambridge City (before we beat them 6-1 in the replay at home) and said he was abandoning the Dons. I don't know whether he was for real or a WUM, but the point is that it set me wondering: what would make me abandon Dons? Would anything make me abandon them?  Certainly not drawing - or even losing - to a team like Cambridge City (I was at that draw and it was fun evening out). I can't see any result driving me away. What about a long-term catastrophic decline in form, dropping down the leagues? To league 2? Not a problem at all, I followed them down there once before. Conference Premier? No, I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem. Conference South? Lower still? It is difficult to imagine, but I honestly think I would now stick with them, because they have become my team. (Though I still follow Liverpool: you don't stop loving your parents because you have children to love too!).

I have thought of circumstances when I would, hopefully temporarily, boycott them, as it happens, but it wouldn't be about achievement. Here's one (and it is in no way a criticism of Swindon Town fans): I would not support the team if we were managed by Paolo de Canio. His open support of facism is beyond the pale.  Note that it is not just that he's a fascist - maybe other people in football are too - I'm not saying the manager has to agree with my politics, but de Canio has brought fascism into football and it is not on.

So that's one thing that would drive me away.  How about this one: how about my team moved away from me, like, say, suppose the MK Dons relocated to, oh I don't know, say, the London Borough of Merton?  Well you've already seen that my reason for following MK Dons was that they were local, so, I don't know, maybe that would be a problem. Well of course it would be a problem, but without being in that situation I can't absolutely declare what I would do.

My point, of course, is that it is my following of the MK Dons that enables me to empathize with the plight of the Wimbledon fans ten years ago.  And, just maybe, it has shown me how in a similar situation I would be following AFCW. How ironic is that?

One final observation for this blog post. We among the MK Dons fans who used to, or still do, support some other team are told we are not 'proper' football fans. But what would be more proper: remaining an armchair Liverpool fan or buying a season ticked at actually watching the MK Dons?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Whom do we remember on Remembrance Day?

At the Remembrance Sunday service this morning there was a lot about "remember with gratitude those who, in the cause of peace and the service of others, died in time of war", and "we give thanks for those who died in the cause of freedom and justice". I think that is wrong, that's not what Remembrance Sunday should be about. If we only remember those who died for those 'good' things (peace, freedom and justice) we'll be missing out most people who have died in war.

The point about Remembrance Sunday is that we remember ALL those who died. One of the tragedies of war is that most people die for no good reason at all.

Which is not to say we shouldn't also, and especially, remember those who died for good causes. But the purpose of, and the wonder of, Remembrance Sunday, is that we remember the horror of all the people who die in war.