A Christmas Post for Non-Christians

I love Christmas.  Unashamedly, while all the cool people declare how much they hate it and that they’re done with it all, I love it. The decorations, the lights, the process of finding things I think the people I love will rejoice in, the food, the warmth.  But most of all, I love seeing the people I call my family, both biological and chosen. I love getting together, eating and laughing and just sitting with them.

For my whole life, in the various forms of therapy I’ve had, when I’ve been told to conjure up a good place, a place where I feel safe, it has been the Christmas Eves of my childhood. The memories have a sense of peace and contentment that makes something in me let go. The people I love, all in the home I adore, pottering about as people converge from all over. I am aware of how lucky I am that these memories are filled with love.

This post isn’t about my life, though. It isn’t a well-written bit of exhortation to love the people you call family while you can, for time grows short.  Other people have done that much better than me (and I’ll link below).  Instead, it’s a kind of party I’m hosting, that I want to share with you.  I’m an atheist (technically an atheist pagan), and, while I love the carols, I also collect other songs which reach me. So these are the articles and songs which help make Christmas for me. Many of the songs are sad (because Christmas can be hard as well as beautiful), but they’re meaningful nonetheless. These are the elements which, for me, show that Christmas is neither  Christian-only holy day, nor is it just the commercialised festival of capitalism it can be.  It’s spending time with the people you love, eating good food, laughing and lighting away the long dark.

So here goes.

(note – the songs have all been collected on a Youtube playlist, too)

I won’t include notes for all of them, just where I want to (it’s my party!)

First, the articles. This piece by David Wong of Cracked is the single greatest article about Christmas I’ve ever read. I sobbed when I read it the first time. And the second time. And it still makes me teary and weepy. I won’t quote from it because you should just read it. It is beautiful, and religion has nothing to do with it.  The world is dark, and time is short. Rejoice that we get to be here at all.

And here’s the funniest Christmas article I’ve ever read, also from Cracked, by Adam Tod Brown. Again, not going to quote it, but it involved the real implications of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

And the greatest scene from Terry Pratchett’s ‘Hogfather’, which is full of amazing scenes, including the fixing of the Little Matchgirl’s story (see my other piece from today):

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

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The greatest of all non-religious Christmas songs for me: White Wine In The Sun by Tim Minchin.  The first time I heard it I sobbed for a full ten minutes (which was embarrassing, because it was at the end of a gig and I was in a room full of people).  But these lines, for me, evoke exactly the feeling I wrote about up top:
“And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won’t understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl.”


Brilliant lyrics from ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ by Greg Lake:
“I wish you a hopeful christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah! Noel! Be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.”

Here’s the Youtube playlist including all these.

Here is my Spotify Christmas Chill playlist, which is beautiful and includes a lot of songs not listed so far (particularly check out the Christmas Song by Stars, it’s stunning).  It’s not always the happiest of playlists, but these are my favourites.

Here’s my general Christmas playlist, with quite the range of songs.

The Little Matchgirl Redux

Been thinking a lot about The Little Matchgirl last night and this morning. It’s a story I adored when I was little, because the saddest stories were my favourites (the original Little Mermaid was another). It’s one of those strange ones that, when you read it later in life, is genuinely disturbing in its message: that poverty is inevitable. That a tiny, starving, abandoned girl freezing to death as shoppers walked past with presents and food for Christmas was a happy ending.

We’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about the return to Victorian values, and how frightening it is. Mostly it’s hyperbole to highlight dangerous trends, but this Christmas more than 120,000 children will be in unstable or temporary accommodation in the UK. This Christmas there will be children too afraid of abusive parents to return home, who will not have access to the kinds of safeguards we put in place to stop them starving and freezing to death on the streets. This Christmas, young people sleeping on the streets will have difficulty finding shelter as councils across the country have been slashing beds and financial support for shelters for six years now. But the Little Matchgirl, she didn’t sell enough matches to save herself, so she was lazy or genetically inferior (-Boris). Providing help, warmth, food, safety – that would just incentivise children to run away! It would all have made children *want* to sleep on the streets.

She freed herself from the ‘welfare trap’ by being a story from a time when welfare didn’t exist, and she just died instead. Because that’s what happens. People don’t magically get better or stop being poor because you remove support systems, they just die. They starve, or freeze, or overdose on whatever they took to make the despair disappear for a while. It’s happening now, and we’re the people scurrying past, ignoring the desperate child with only hours to live, watching the shooting star heralding her death and wondering who it’s for.

Pratchett, in his infinite wisdom, rewrote the ending in The Hogfather. Rather than allow a child to die just so everyone else could feel good about not being that poor, an explanation which is monstrously horrific once it’s laid bare, he gave her the best present he could – a future.

Children are freezing and starving right now because we have chosen to let them. It fits our narrative of borders and danger and invasion. We could give them a future, but we choose not to. The danger of understanding the horror at the core of The Little Matchgirl – that the angels arrive to take her away after she dies, instead of taking her somewhere warm and safe before – means that we have to take responsibility.

“Terry Pratchett hasn’t been an escapist writer for quite some time. He’ll amuse you, sure; but he won’t tell you that things are great just the way they are, or that they’re hopeless and there’s nothing you can do. He’ll tell you that you — yes, you — should make them better.
And then he’ll do something even more radical. He’ll make you think you can.” (always credited to an article that no longer exists)

Cradle 2 Grave: Society Needs You

CN: discussion of suicide

Cradle2Grave is our new campaign, to coincide with the release of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ – Ken Loach’s new film that won all the awards over the summer, about the benefits system in the UK and how it’s destroying the people who need it. Please consider throwing a few quid in the pot so we can reach as many people as we can.

 

A number of the most active and vital activist groups for disabled people and poor people have worked on this together. We struggle to make our cause known for a lot of reasons – hostile media, hostile government, ableism, classism. But one of the more pressing reasons is that the starkest indicator of the problem can’t be reported on with the outrage and severity it deserves.

 

Suicide is well understood to be contagious, and in communities where people are struggling, irresponsible reporting can lethally endanger them. There are very strict guidelines for journalists when it comes to reporting on deaths by suicide to avoid these clusters. It should never be front page, methods should not be disclosed and reasons must be very carefully weighed because the risk of ‘statement suicides’ is high.

 

For our community, who have lost so many people over the months and years, this means we are restricted. The suicide rate is the most obvious and scariest result of Welfare Reform, though not the most widespread and not the only one. It is a vivid and moving statistic which should affect even the hardest hearts. But we can’t use it, not in a way which would be effective, because we have a duty of care to our community. So many people tell us it can’t be as bad as we say it is because they would have heard about it. But we can’t make them heard as anything other than an aggregate, or individually as dispassionate historic accounts. If we could talk about them as they happen, like we talk about the deaths of black people at the hands of the police, using their names, describing the horror of their deaths, we could make the murderous system we’re facing understood. But we can’t, because more people would die, and we’re trying to save them.

 

So, in the absence of the ability to make the severity of our situation completely clear, we need to reach out by other means. We need to talk about the poverty, the starvation, the isolation, the loss, the exacerbation of disease and disability. We need to talk about how this hurts everyone, how one in five people will need this help at some point and it needs to be fit for purpose. We need to make our voices heard over the venomous shrieks of ‘Scrounger! Lazy! Parasite! Worthless!’ and that takes money. The people who want us silent and gone have all the money they need, and they use it in abundance. We need your help. We are largely people at the mercy of this system ourselves, already sick, already disabled, trying to save our own lives and the lives of everyone else by ensuring the NHS and the welfare state, our country’s proudest triumphs, live on as the pillars of society.

 

Please help us. Please talk about this, tell people to look us up, donate if you can. Even a few pounds or euros or dollars makes a huge difference.

 

Please.

Another Year Gone

 

Two years ago from right now (00.01am on the 19th) I still had hope.

Iwp_20140918_005 was exhausted, because I’d been outside a polling station in the drizzle all day, smiling my heart out, infused with the knowledge that these few hours on a single day was the chance people had been fighting for for so long.

I’m going to repost below what I posted last year, because it’s still true. I just wanted to update that sentence in the middle (you’ll know it when you get to it).

It’s so much worse than we thought it would be on our worst days, the ones where we were told we were hysterical and fearmongering and conspiracy theorists.

Imagine if we’d told them back then that Boris Johnson would be our Foreign Secretary, that Theresa May, fresh from building a piece of legislation so invasive and dangerous that China sees it as a defence of their own surveillance, would be crowned Prime Minister after Labour detonated itself with an internecine war on socialism.  Imagine if we’d told them that, not only had all those disabled people died in the years of the Tory government, but that people would decide that they wanted more of that and give them unfettered control.  That Farage would see all his dreams fulfilled, and the new UKIP leader would point out that Theresa May, in her first months as PM, put into action almost the entire UKIP manifesto.  That the Tories were successfully gerrymandering constituencies to ensure that only people on the electoral roll were counted as people, meaning that students, foreign nationals, children, and various other marginalised populations would no longer be properly represented.

Imagine if we’d told them we were leaving the EU, and that the aftermath of the vote had caused skyrocketing racist abuse, that an MP would be gunned down in the streets by a British nationalist in the weeks before.

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My nails on Referendum Day

I don’t know what kind of Scotland we would have been living in by now.  It would have been difficult.  We would have been angry at each other a lot of the time as we negotiated the construction of a nation.  We would have been blamed for all kinds of ills.  But it wouldn’t have been this living nightmare.

Tonight, I’m drinking to the dead.  To the disabled people who haven’t made it this far because independence was their last hope.  To the disabled people south of the border with even less.

Hope still exists, in little pockets here and there.  I was at the Depute Leader’s Hustings yesterday, and there was hope. We see our politicians fighting every day  that Westminster’s in session for human rights and fairness and support, so at least someone is opposing the dystopia.  We are surviving.  We’re holding on, because the fight goes on.  And I hope.  Still.  Most of the time, anyway.

 

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Memories of Last Summer

There is a strange, sweet cruelty about Facebook’s ‘Memories’ function: watching the different iterations of yourself go through times of joy and sorrow, which you remember the shape of but not the details. Each post is like a lens suddenly focusing, with sometimes razor-blade clarity.

memories

It is September, and I am watching myself get ready for my wedding. Six years ago, I am scared of what might go wrong (with the event, not the marriage), excited to see everyone, recovering from the Swine Flu my body so thoughtfully picked up just two weeks before the date. I see everyone’s joy at how beautiful the day was, how much fun we had, how it was the best wedding they had been to. People talk about the music, share their photos. And then, a few days later, I start talking about how I am recovering. My chronic illness, which I made an executive decision to ignore on the day, is taking its toll. I expected this, so I am still sanguine about it.

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Here in 2015, though, I know what’s coming. I know it will take me another two months before I am able to really move properly again, and it will be ten long, frustrating months before I am back to the level I was at the day before the wedding. I know that I will accept this as the price for a perfect day, but that it will be lonely and painful and mind-numbingly tedious. This is the cruelty of these Memories: we forget pain, we blur the edges of it so it can’t cut us anymore, and this simple social media function gives us back the full story.

It is September. I have been watching the Referendum campaign pick up pace. I wondered, back at the beginning of the year, whether I could have made more of a difference if I’d just started talking about it earlier. I couldn’t have made enough of a difference, I know that, but I still wonder. As the summer passed, the joy and hope of last year was a balm for the soul. Remembering that we had so much fun, how I came to be part of this group which is so central to my life now, how we thought if we could just show people what was possible they would join us. We’re reaching the last week now, though, and now the mood has changed. I want to yell back through time, but I don’t know what I could say. I think it isn’t me I want to yell to.

The great fallacy of the Referendum was that it was a choice between change and the status quo. It was never that. It was a choice between two types of change, and it was that realisation which made me switch sides. I was a lifelong Unionist, for many reasons, but chief among them was that the risk was too great. We had a good thing going, and giving it up for an outdated version of irrelevant patriotism was foolish. I became disabled when I was just 19, and the arguments about freedom and pride were nothing when set against the risk to the state on which my survival depended. Smashing the state is a lovely idea when you’re able-bodied and healthy, but when your life depends on a system of social security, risking all the disabled people for a flag seemed murderous.

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Things began to change around the turn of the century. Rather than supportive, it became humiliating to seek the necessary help. People became spiteful, brittle, when talking about the welfare state. And then came the Tories. Whatever their electoral power was, their real success was the changing of the narrative. They turned ‘scrounger’ from a descriptor of a person committing fraud to ‘anyone claiming any assistance for any reason’. They lied, openly, in Parliament – something that surprisingly isn’t illegal. People began to die. In the midst of this, Scotland chose another way. I was hilariously antagonistic about the voting in of the SNP, who I saw as hopelessly idealistic and dangerous. I had no idea. I had no idea. I want to tell myself back then to actually read some research instead of relying on the prejudice I’d grown up with. I want to tell her to get involved then. That they were the only people who had both the power and the will to save lives. They tried to mitigate the worst of the effects, and while people kept dying in England and Wales, we had some respite. The Referendum was set. I was terrified. And then, one day, I realised I had been terrified of the wrong thing.

I was at a talk by Blair Jenkins in the village I grew up in. Someone asked about the risk of leaving the UK, and he, so simply, asked about the risk of staying. I missed the next few minutes of the talk while my world view tilted on its axis. I had read so much about the psychology of decision making, about risk taking, about willpower, about how we see our current situation as safe even when it isn’t and the change as dangerous even when it’s statistically much less risky. I just hadn’t applied it to the decisions I’d made before I read all that.

It is the last week of the Referendum campaign, and I am trying, with every shred of my soul, to trigger that understanding in everyone, anyone, else. I am disabled, and I see what’s coming. I know how bad it is going to be for us, if we lose. I know this is the one chance we have to save the lives of the hundreds, thousands of people who will suffer and die while the UK tries to figure out if it’s going to remember that the NHS and the Welfare State are our greatest triumphs or if it’s going to fully commit to following America into corporate oblivion. I am begging for my life and for the lives of the people like me, or who will become like me.

I want to talk to me a year ago, but I don’t know what I’d say. She is still hopeful, still desperate. She doesn’t know what’s coming. She thinks she does. She knows we’ll be punished for stepping out of line if we lose. Knows the dawn of a new country will be difficult and tense but worth it. Knows that losing means the fight for justice will become a symbolic struggle, that she can’t stop because stopping would be complicity, but that it will be useless in the face of TTIP, a Labour party who has forgotten who they are, a Conservative Party consumed by ideology and willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor and disabled in its pursuit. She can’t imagine how bad it will get. I can’t imagine what I’ll be reading a year from now, in 2016.

She doesn’t know how bad the loss will feel. That we will get so close and then sit and watch the No votes roll in, sobbing and devastated. That tears will come easily for months, whenever the loss is remembered. It will be like grieving. It will be grieving. I cannot imagine now what the Scotland we could have had would be like. It would have been so difficult: we would have been blamed for the oil price drop, of course, we would be in the midst of fighting for our assets, and we would have been scared and tense and it would have been so, so worth it. We would be watching the refugee catastrophe and finally feel that we can offer assistance and that we are no longer complicit with the Empire’s stranglehold on the world. The death statistics would have been published and we would have grieved with the marginalised people and be insistent that it is not the only way to run a society. We would be determined to show that austerity is not good for a country, only for a very tiny group of people right at the top, and that investment in people and services makes a country strong, not weak. We would be arguing, all the time, about how best to pursue justice, prosperity, support, and it would be wonderful, because our arguing would have purpose. We would have a chance at enacting our ideas, instead of sitting in our homes, numb with horror, talking amongst ourselves about what should be done but never will.

I can’t tell her any of that. It’s too late. We didn’t convince enough people in time. Instead, we’ll watch the memories tick past, day after day, blow after blow. I’ll still read them, though. It’s important to see where we’ve come from, where we still have to go. I am mortified by some of my past posts, by how ignorant and uninformed I was. I am thankful that I am learning. These memories give our lives context.

Six years ago, I am on a sofa, recovering slowly, surrounded by the people I love and newly married to the man I adore. Some of the friends who were there that day are gone from my life now, but I have new ones, and life goes on. A year ago I am looking forward to the new country we will build. Like Arundhati Roy, I can hear the better world breathing. Today, I am still adrift, casting about for the path to that better world. Maybe in a few years my Memories will show that we found it. I hope. Still, I hope.

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Culture Matters

One of my American friends commented recently that the ‘Glorious Britain‘ souvenir shop in Heathrow is stocked to the brim with icons which don’t seem to represent anything other than England and, in reality, don’t represent any of England outside of the square mile at the heart of London. Red double decker buses, red phone boxes, Beefeaters, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, the Palace of Westminster – all icons of London.  So seeing the new post at Wings (where the photos are nicked from) about the new brand blitz made my head hurt.

Culture matters. It may seem like things like this are ridiculous trivialities to get upset about, but the symbols of a culture are important. It’s why kilts were outlawed in Scotland for so long, why we’re still having to fight to get the Scots language taken seriously (because language, more than anything, gives a people power). If you can reduce a culture to its most inoffensive aspects – for us, shortbread, whisky, haggis, Scottish country dancing, kilts – and then usurp even them, you can successfully eradicate a cultural identity. The first part was finished years ago, to the extent that the 2015 GE was covered by endless political cartoonists and commentators mocking us for these things.

We’re now into the second part, and here are the photos to prove it.

 

 

The icons printed on these products don’t imply Scotland’s part of a great union of countries in which each culture is respected and part of a bigger whole. They show that even the things we have managed to keep through centuries of having our culture intentionally suppressed and made as toothless and quaint as possible, all of it belongs to London.

Truth and Consequences

So, Chilcot. At last.
 
I believe completely that Blair believed he was doing the right thing. That he still believes it (because the mind will go to extraordinary lengths to protect you from the truth if the truth is something you could not live with). I have no doubt that he believes he ‘agonises’, that he ‘thinks about the lives lost’. I don’t think he was pursuing a conscious imperialist crusade or a conscious legacy-maker.
 
However, none of that actually matters. Chilcot seems to imply (I haven’t read the 2.5m words, so this may change) that he deliberately exaggerated the evidence, knowing that what was there was not sufficient. Whether he did it because he believed it was necessary to remove Saddam or because he wanted the oil doesn’t matter. He still misled a country to get them to agree to a war which was unnecessary.
 
The chaotic crucible of horror that Iraq turned into as the invasion progressed, and after we threw up our hands and wandered off, was not ‘unforeseeable’. Even I remember thinking that it was a recipe for disaster, but Chilcot details the ways in which the threats were made explicitly and comprehensively, so the excuse that they didn’t know what was going to happen is also nonsensical.
 
And then there is Blair’s speech today. ‘The world is a better and safer place’. He did ‘the right thing’.
 
I cannot imagine what the weight of truth on a mind trying to believe it is a good person, that it didn’t kill hundreds of thousands of people for no reason, must be like. The kind of cognitive dissonance a mind has to try to resolve to avoid seeing the ocean of blood and grief and horror you are responsible for must make it crack. He *has* to believe that he did the right thing, because to acknowledge otherwise would be to start screaming and never stop. I cannot imagine that weight, and I don’t want to, because I don’t care.
 
He believed he knew better than everyone else – than the experts in the region, the rule of law, the rules of evidence and the grave responsibility it is to commit a country to war. He believed that the rules were breakable for a higher purpose and that is a choice people in charge sometimes have to make, and then, most of the time, they will see that the rules were there for a reason. Those rules are borne out of centuries of war and bloodshed and a desperate desire to not have the world descend into that mire again. They won’t always be right, but the cost of violating them and being wrong about it is never paid for by the likes of Blair. It is always paid by the poorest and the most desperate people in the world. By tiny, broken bodies and their weeping parents. By families incinerated in an instant. By countries taken completely by wild-eyed murderers and rapists.
 
Blair can say he’s sad, and he may be telling the truth, but it doesn’t matter. Justice isn’t done, and the dead can’t be brought back.

Empires and Consequences

Well, tomorrow’s going to be interesting. Hope my friends at Westminster are ready for a hell of a day.

If justice can be said to still exist on these shores, Blair will be on his way to the Hague very soon. The people who made the decisions to commit war crimes while wearing our country’s uniform should be in the dock along with him. Not the grunts who followed the orders, the people who gave them.

Britain will never answer for its true criminal history. We committed some of the worst historical crimes of the last thousand years. We were the largest empire the world has ever seen. We ended civilisations, burned whole cultures to ash and wiped their memory from the earth. We stole and raped and murdered our way across continents and we still haven’t stopped, we just do it with economics and politics these days.

Every part of the status we have in the world, the power we hold, the riches we command, all of it comes from what we stole from others. We took the resources and skills while suppressing the structures of self-rule and autonomy of other countries and cultures. We set whole continents back centuries, and now dare to consider them savage or poor, and we call their citizens who seek safety in our country scroungers. We owe them everything we have.

Britain’s history is drowning in the blood of its victims, and it’s time we began to answer for some of it. We will never atone for the full weight of it all, but we could start by putting on trial the man who lied to the world to start yet another war in a country we had been brutalising for more than a century. The rise of IS is traceable directly to the decision to break a country and not have any plan to build it up again.

So, tomorrow, we might begin to answer for our crimes. We’ve got away with centuries of them, though, so I’m doubtful. Don’t let up. Don’t let him get away with it. Don’t let us get away with it again.