Archive | November, 2012

Writing About Writing.

28 Nov

  I try to write. I am not a famous author. I am merely an obscure blogger. I have never earned a penny from my written efforts. It’s just a need that grows inside me. The longer I go without putting pen to paper, the greater the need.

  An artist friend once explained to me that she didn’t produce pictures so she could sell them and earn a living. She didn’t create works of art just for her own amusement. She produced a piece because she had a need to express herself, and art was her chosen form of expression. It was as if something was living inside her that she felt compelled to share. In a way, creating a picture was like giving birth.

  I imagine there’s a little bit of that in my urge to write. I don’t claim to be a great wordsmith, but I still want to write things down and express myself through writing. I feel better if I can take whatever thoughts and feelings are swirling around inside me and bring them on to the outside, transposed on to a peice of paper. ( or a computer screen.)

  At the moment I cannot think of anything I want to write about. It’s been like this for days, but I still feel the urge to write. It makes me strangely restless, as if something is missing from my life. ( Actually I feel much the same if I haven’t got a book to read.) Everyday I hope the inspiration will come in order to dispel my restlessness.

  One problem is that I want whatever I write to be half decent, at least in my own eyes. This is not a consideration that holds up many people who indulge themselves on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Such sites produce veritable mountains of trivia, in my view. Thanks to the Internet we seem to live in an increasingly narcissistic society where countless thousands sound-off on everything from the Middle East crisis to whose going to triumph in X Factor. We also find out: what they’ve had for breakfast, how many drinks they had last night and what their plans are for the day. The main aim is not often to write something that is amusing or thought-provoking, but to be a self-publicist. There’s plenty of quantity on social media but not enough quality, in my opinion. I hold up my hands and admit that I indulge in some of this too. It’s like the online equivalent of being at a party and trying to impress the people one encounters. I must try to curb my egotism.

  In the end though, publishing soundbites is not enough for me, so that’s why I turned to blogging. My daughter Catherine, another writer, first suggested this to me. I need a longer, more flexible format in which to express my ideas and opinions. It’s as if I’ve put myself back into school and have instructed myself to write an essay. So I have to think about: spelling, punctuation and paragraphs, which is not a priority for texters, tweeters or status updaters. Blogging is still a bit self-obsessed I know, because it involves putting your thoughts and feelings out there into the world and expecting that others will be engaged. However, I believe that it’s a good, healthy thing to do because it allows me to: gather my thoughts, develop my arguments and hopefully engage others in a dialogue. I enjoy it. That’s why I have been so out-of-sorts recently — I could not think of anything stimulating to blog about. You might say that I have been suffering from a case of bloggers-block! Then I came up with the idea of writing about writing. As I see the words cascading on to the page, I get a good feeling. The restlessness and feeling of dissatisfaction have dissipated.

  It’s funny but I don’t always know what I’m going to write about when I sit down in front of the paper. I remember doing a creative writing experiment while visiting a friend in a remote corner of western Ireland. She gave herself, my then partner and I, 3 sheets of A4 each. We then descended into silence. The rule was that we weren’t allowed to speak until we had filled our pages with writing. At first it was difficult. We sat there staring at our empty sheets. But then the words came, at first in a trickle and then in a steady flow. We wrote about: travel, nature, friendship, ourselves, hopes and fears, the silence, the view from the farmhouse window, encounters with strangers, the elements. Afterwards we tried to create rather pretentious poetry by combining random snippets from each of our scribblings. That didn’t really work although it led to more than a few laughs once the wine began to flow. What the exercise did do however was to release thoughts and emotions that were previously locked up inside us. They were now out in the open ready to be shared. It was like a magic trick. We started with empty sheets of paper but ended up with a stimulating and entertaining discussion.

  As well as writing a blog I keep a diary. I’ve done it for much of my life, on and off. I make daily entries outlining what I do, how I feel about things and major events in the news. Sometimes it seems like a pointless task, largely recording mundane, everyday happenings. But , slowly and gradually, a picture of my life emerges out of the detail. If I stopped writing it I’m sure I would quickly feel restless and a little lost. Why I do it is not always clear to me. At times it feels like an unnecessary millstone around my neck. However, as I get older and more forgetful, I realize why diary writing is so useful. Half the time, I have trouble remembering what I did last week, never mind last month or last year. If I didn’t write down what occurs in my life and then just forget about it, then it would be as if it never happened. That in turn would make it seem as if I never existed. This would be especially true after I die. If one quickly forgets one’s own life, how quickly will one slip off other people’s radar once one has gone? I don’t like the idea of disappearing into a void even though I know that this is inevitable in the end. So by writing a blog and a diary, I suppose I am trying to create a sort of “legacy” for myself. I want to be remembered. It’s all very egotistical I know, but if I don’t do it, then I don’t think anyone else would bother. I am not a “celebrity”. No ghost writer is going to come along and write my biography for me. I feel that it’s up to me.

  A close relative sadly died at a premature age earlier this year. She wrote a blog about her illness and life which ended up being read and appreciated by thousands of people. She lives on in our memories, through photographs and film, but particularly through her blog. Writing was important to her. It was her great skill as she was a journalist by profession. It helped her to negotiate those difficult final months. It also helps her to live on.

  I am not a professional writer and I am not writing under dramatic or tragic circumstances. My stuff is more about everyday events and about what type of person I am. Much of it may be mundane to others but I find it a very theraputic thing to do. Writing helps me to feel whole. To misquote Descartes: ” I write, therefore I am.” One day fairly soon, I won’t be here anymore, but my blogs, memoirs and diaries will hopefully live on, at least until someone consigns them to the bin. I imagine a future family historian finding my writings, and as he/she reads them I will spring to life again. Hopefully my writing will help me to become more than a name and a date on a family tree, or a faded photograph in a forgotten album.

  Maybe I flatter myself too much. That’s the nature of personal writing. It tends to be self-centred. However, putting pen to paper gives meaning to my life, plugs the hole in my faulty memory and possibly will help me to live on into future generations. I admit it’s all a bit of an ego trip. Tony Blair’s not the only one who’s concerned about his legacy! At the very least, writing this piece has helped me pass a couple of thoughtful hours. It has enabled me to use my time in a constructive and meaningful way. Afterall, just a short time ago, I was sitting staring at a blank piece of paper!

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How I Became a Heretic.

2 Nov

  I love my parents and recognise that they are very good people. Yet I have spent much of my life rebelling against two of the most important things they tried to teach me — their religion and their diet.

  When I was 17, I got sent into an empty room to eat alone. This was a surprising turn of events considering I belonged to a very loving, Christian family. What was my crime? Well, it was to sing a well known hymn while my parents and my sister were eating their dinner. Normally mum and dad, being devout Christians, would have loved to listen to a melodious hymn. They enjoyed singing hymns every Sunday when they attended chapel, and my sister, Glenys, and I, were taught to sing them at Sunday School. However, on this occasion, I was using the words to point out what I considered to be the hypocracy at the heart of their life-style. The hymn goes like this:

       All things bright and beautiful,

       All Creatures great and small,

       All things wise and wonderful,

       The Lord God made them all.   ( Cecil F Alexander — Hymns for Little Children — 1848.)

  How could such innocent lyrics possibly be the source of a family controversy? Well, it’s because, while I was singing the hymn, the rest of the family were devouring the dead body of one of those very, “bright and beautiful” creatures that the Lord God had made. The words are idealistic and child-like, but conceal the real story. In the society and family that I grew up in, it was taken for granted that animals, birds and fish had been put on earth merely for human use ( and abuse) and pleasure. ( it still is.)

  In the 197o’s, the popular TV comedy act: The Goodies ( Tim-Brooke Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) stripped the hymn of its naivety and sentimentality, when they parodied it in their song: “I’m a Carnivore.” Their version read:

     All things bright and beautiful,

     All creatures great and small,

     The cuddly and the furry ones,

     I love to eat them all.

  This seems particularly strange as Bill Oddie at least, was identified as being a wild-life lover through his association with programmes like “Spring-Watch” on BBC. Maybe it can be seen as bad taste to make a joke about the deaths of innocent creatures, but at least this version tears away the veil of hypocracy and tells it as it really is, in our so-called compassionate, Christian society.

  At 17 years old, I became a vegetarian. ( see previous blogs.) The penny dropped in my mind and I realized that by eating meat I was supporting an industry that murdered millions of creatures every year. It was an annual, horrific holocaust, largely uncommented upon in everyday life. Up to that point, I had subscribed to the widely held view that animals and birds lives had no value except to provide a service for people or food for human stomachs. Once I realized that I fundamentally disagreed with this selfish, human-centric view of the world, I stopped eating meat straight away. I didn’t want to be responsible for countless unnecessary deaths. The industrial scale slaughter of animals would no longer be done in my name.

  But what about my parents? Weren’t they supposed to follow the Christian ideas of: gentleness, compassion and love? Why didn’t they agree that the taking of a life, any life, is wrong? Afterall, one of the Ten Commandments, supposedly given to Moses by God, said ” Thou shalt not kill.” From that time onwards I have viewed meat as murder. Compounding that murder by eating the victim’s dead body seemed to me to be absolutely gross! I genuinely could not understand why my parents –  good, caring people and devout Christians, could not see this. A screen seems to have dropped down in their minds, preventing them from viewing the animal world in any other way. The singing of that children’s hymn, extolling the wonders of nature and the miracle of God’s creation, was my attempt to make them view their meal in a different light. I wanted them to see “life” when they looked at an animal, rather than just seeing “food.” However, I failed miserably and got sent away to eat alone.

  46 years later I am still a vegetarian and trying to become a vegan. My mum and dad still routinely eat meat and fish and think nothing of it. My younger brother Graham, also became a vegetarian, independently of me, but it never made them stop and think — “Well, both our sons think eating meat is wrong. maybe we should think about their reasons and reassess our diet.” Not a bit of it. They just carried on, regarding themselves as “normal” and their two vegetarian sons as “odd.” One of my friends, Malcolm, took the same decision when he was 17. When his bemused parents asked why he was refusing to eat the meat on his plate, he replied that he didn’t want his stomach to be used as a tomb for a corpse. I wish I’d thought of that back in 1967, but I don’t suppose it would have made any difference.

  You might think I am being very unfair, picking on my poor parents, when they are actually belong to the vast majority, whereas Graham, Malcolm and myself are members of a tiny minority. I am using them as an example because I am so close to them and this increases my perplexity about how they can be so different from me. How can good, decent people casually sanction murder? At the time I first challenged their views, I thought things were made worse by them purporting to be good Christians. Wasn’t this the religion that presented it’s founder as the “Good Shepherd”, looking after every member of his flock? As a child, I loved the idea of Jesus being born in a stable ( an animal’s home) and placed in a manger (an animal’s feeding trough), with a cow, sheep and donkey sharing the magical moment of the nativity. I cannot remember there ever being an abattoir in the background. I loved the carol “Little Donkey” which revered the dumb animal which carried Mary to the birthplace of her special son. Later, that same humble creature was given pride of place when Jesus rode into Jerusalam on Palm Sunday. Then there were all the stories of St Francis of Assissi being kind and loving to animal and birds. It seemed from these stories, taught to me at Methodist Sunday School, that love, care and respect for all the creatures of God’s world was a central feature of the Christian philosophy. When I was young, I believed that Christianity stood for love, charity and kindness to all living beings.

  Thus it was very difficult for me to equate “compassionate” Christians, with their sanctioning of the slaughter of innocent creatures.  The shield had lifted in my mind when my grandad casually extinguished the life of a poor chicken right in front of my eyes. This was his Christmas gift to us. ( see previous blog “How My Grandfather Turned me Into a Vegetarian.”) My dad, who as a lad, had helped his father slaughter countless pigs and chickens, thought it strange that I refused to help him prepare the dead body for the table. He probably thought I was just being squeamish and a bit of a softy. I was a disappointment to him, as he was to me. A gulf, created by our opposite attitudes to animals, yawned between us. To him, animals, birds and fish were there to be exploited for our pleasue. To me, animals, birds and fish had as much right to live their lives as human beings. I regard all life as sacred. So began our war of words. I sang hymns sarcastically to try to make him realise the inconsistency of his position. He sent me into another room and said that if I didn’t eat the meat provided for me, then I wouldn’t get anything else. ( my mum fed me in secret for a time while dad was at work.) Dad and I both soon backed down and tried to paper over the cracks, but I have never changed my mind and neither has he.( or mum for that matter.)  There has been an unspoken, uneasy truce ever since.

  It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize that for my parents, and many others, eating meat is actually part of being a Christian, instead of flouting Christian principles as I had first thought. Christians, it seems, regard meat as God’s gift to them. That is why they say Grace at the beginning of a meal, thanking God for what he has provided for them. They seem to believe that the killing and subsequent eating of a living creature has been sanctioned by God. In the past, in medieval times, vegetarians were branded as “heretics” as they were insulting God by refusing to accept His gift. “Heretic” was the label given to anyone who did not follow the strict rules set by the power brokers at the head of the established Church. As such they were liable to be punished, including being burnt at the stake, because, as is well known, Christianity has not been renowned for its tolerance and compassion over the years, despite Jesus’s preaching. Hence, in this sense, I became a heretic the moment I chose to be a vegetarian.

  I have also recently come to realize, after reading Colin Spencer’s excellent book: ” Vegetarianism: A History”, that the most sacred Christian ceremony, the Mass or Holy Communion, is really a celebration of meat eating. Christians actually believe they are consuming the body of Christ and drinking his blood when they are partaking of their bread and wine. So eating flesh is validated and drinking blood is not just the activity of vampires.

  All of this is sanctioned in the Bible. When I was young I was told that the Bible was the word of the one and only God — which conveniently ignored the Qu’ran, which is the word of the Muslim God ( Allah), the Veda, the word of the Hindu God, the Guru Granth Sahib, the word of the Sikh God, the Buddhist scriptures, and so on. Now I realize that the Bible is just a book, or a collection of books, written by people. So not surprisingly it contains words that back up the life-style and belief systems of the majority of people, particularly of those in power.

  It’s interesting to note that the Bible has been heavily censored. Inconvenient gospels such as those by the disciple Thomas or Mary, the mother of Christ, were left out because they didn’t fit in with the views of the most powerful early leaders of the Christian Church such as St Paul. Ancient documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940’s, give us a glimpse of what was censored, because it did not fit into the theological straight-jacket imposed by Paul and his followers. Many early Christian sects were in fact vegetarian, leading ascetic lives in order to cleanse themselves of earthly pleasures. This they thought would enable them to concentrate more on spiritual development. One such group, based in Jerusalem, was led by Jesus’s brother James. It was characterised by its belief in non-violence toward animals as well as toward people. It was very suspicious of Paul and his followers. However, in the subsequent power struggles for hearts and minds, Paul came out on top and so was able to mould the early church to fit in with his own beliefs and life-style.

  One such belief was in the Jewish dietary laws, which say that God had declared certain creatures as unclean and therefore not to be eaten, while certain other creatures were clean, and so could be consumed with God’s blessing. Paul, who before he became the chief of the Christians had been a devout Jew, following all the strict rules of Judaism, carried these dietary ideas into his new faith. The Jews had possibly developed this meat- eating religious philosophy in reaction to the Ancient Egyptians who had enslaved them. Once free, they wanted to distinguish themselves from a culture that revered and even deified animal and birds. Many Egyptian priests also embraced a vegetarian, ascetic life-style to enhance their spiritual journey. So possibly to separate themselves from the philosophy of their former masters, the Jews adopted a policy of subduing animals rather than venerating them. Thus meat-eating could have developed amongst the Jewish people for anti-Egyptian political reasons. Subsequently, this was carried forward into the customs and practices of Christianity by the likes of influential Jews like Paul.

  When I challenged my parents and other church-goers about their carnivorous eating habits, by pointing out the Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, they countered by saying that that rule only applied to human beings, not to animals. They pointed out a statement in another part of the Bible in which God gave people dominion over all the other creatures of the world. It’s funny how God always seems to agree with the dominant majority of human beings! This chilling passage comes in Genesis 9:2, and has formed the basis of all the Judeo-Christian dealings with the rest of the animal kingdom ever since. It reads: ” And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.” So, according to this pronouncement, God wants a world based on fear and dread, rather than on love and compassion which Jesus promotes in the New Testament. Which world would you rather live in? Genesis 9:2 sounds almost like a section from Mein Kampf or a Nazi master -race manifesto. Just substitute: beasts, fowls and fishes for : Jews, Gypsies ( Romanies) and Slavs, and you’ve got it! Nazi racial theories deemed non Aryans such as Slavs as sub-human, fit for enslavement and to be killed at will, whilst Jews and Gypsies were described as :”life unworthy of life”, fit only for extermination. How is this different from most human being’s attitude to the animal kingdom?

  The blood-curdling Old Testament passage quoted above, comes in the section that relates what happened after the Flood. It seems heavily ironic that Noah saved all that wild-life from the rising waters by taking them on board his Ark ( following God’s supposed command), but then celebrated landing on dry land by killing some of the very creatures he had “saved” in order to have a feast.( again following God’s supposed command.) Contradictions abound. This in turn follows the description of the Garden of Eden earlier in Genesis, where everyone and everything is happy, living in harmony and enjoying a vegetarian diet. Eve was warned about the apple on the tree, not the leg on the lamb.

  It’s a dangerous business quoting the Bible to validate one’s views. Apart from the mixed messages about the rights and wrongs of killing, there is the example of the Old Testament preaching vengeance ( An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), while Jesus in the New Testament espouses forgiveness and loving one’s enemy. The thing is: the Bible is not really the word of God in my opinion, but the words of many men. The women, by the way, seem to have been mostly edited out. I think it would be safer to follow one’s own conscience rather than trying to follow the contradictory messages of the Bible.

  I think men grew to like the taste of flesh, so conveniently inserted into the Holy Book the idea that God gave them the right to eat it. This in turn, indicated that meat was God’s gift which it would be sacrilegious to refuse. In early religions, lives were sacrificed as gifts from humans to gods. Christians seem to have turned this concept on its head and claim that lives are now sacrificed in order for God to give the gift of meat to humans.

  The result of all this contradictory and hypocritical mess is that I have not only rejected my parents’ carnivorous diet but also their Christian beliefs. Being faithful Methodists, I have been sorely tempted to point out that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, totally eschewed meat- eating.( for ascetic, spiritual reasons.) However I know that it will never stop them from munching their bacon sandwiches or devouring their pork, beef or turkey roasts. Afterall, meat is a symbol of wealth, success and status in our society, as well as of human domination over the world.( a world that humans are swiftly destroying.)  Meat eating is also sanctioned by God! How can mere sympathy and compassion for other living creatures stand-up against all that?

  The chasm between my beliefs and those of my parents remains. But what can I do? Despite being a vegetarian and a heretic I still love them and would never wish to upset them by singing “All things bright and beautiful” again.