Drink up, chaps!

The new Department of Health Guidelines on safe alcohol limits will leave many of us reaching for a stiff brandy.

The headlines make worrying reading: there is no safe limit for drinking alcohol; around 5% of cancers diagnosed today can be attributed to alcohol; around 20,000 people in the UK have cancer because they have drunk alcohol.

Worse, the old wives’ tale that a little alcohol protects the heart turns out only to apply to old wives – or, more precisely, to all women over 55. Even then, the effect only works at 5 units per week. The rest of us can forget it.

These new scientific findings, updated from the last trawl of the research evidence over 20 years ago, make it plain that our risks of some horrible cancer go up with our alcohol intake. The new guidelines reflect this, encouraging us all to lower our risk by effectively halving the old safe maximum of 28 per week units for men.

So 14 units it is, for men and women. And spread over 3-4 days. Which means you can have a couple of drinks for half the days each week, but ideally you should aim to go tee-total for at least three days.

The bit that escaped me in news reports, however, is this thorny issue of risk. Just how much more likely am I to get cancer if I keep up 14, or 28, units per week?  One BBC feature equated the risk of an early death from drinking above the new recommended maximum to the risk of death from driving a car. Which is what? And by implication, am I supposed to conclude that I should stop driving my car as well?

The news that around 5% of cancers are caused by alcohol is indeed sobering. But before I pour my Dalmore 1962 down the toilet, the statistics are worth a closer look.

Our two biggest cancers affect breast and bowel. According to Dame Sally Davies on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning (about 2hr11″ in) without drinking, about 110 women per 1000 will get breast cancer. Of those drinking up to the new guidelines, a further 20 will get breast cancer as a direct consequence. Of those drinking up to the old guidelines (21 units for women), a further 50 will succumb.

Among male bowel cancer, however, the story is different. Take a thousand non-drinking men, and you can expect 64 to get bowel cancer. Take another thousand men who drink up to the new limits (14 units) and, still, only 64 will be expected to get bowel cancer. In other words, at this level of drinking, there is no effect.

It’s only when we take a group of a thousand men drinking up to 28 units that we see a difference: an extra 20 men will succumb. Put differently, the old limit increases the incidence of bowel cancer by just 2% over the new.

Life is a balance of risks.  Presumably if I cut down my driving I will also cut down my chances of an early death at the wheel. If I stop driving completely, I will remove that risk altogether.

Each person will respond to these new guidelines in their own way. My fear is that they may not do so with all the facts to hand. The message seems to be that ‘alcohol could kill you.’ While that may be true, it is no basis for a decision on intake, any more than ‘driving could kill you’ would affect my decision to take the family on holiday.

If bowel cancer is one of the big ones for men to fear, I take some comfort from the fact that the research shows no link between intake and cancer at the level suggested by the new guidelines. So 14 units it is, chaps. Eat, drink and be merry: tomorrow you’re unlikely to die.

A triple bill

Finally getting back to the blog after a wee while away…

Here are some recent Thoughts for the Day

Source: BBC

The purpose of education

Broadcast on 2 March 2015

The value of mystery

Broadcast on 22 April 2015

The power of weakness

Broadcast on 11 May 2015

The banality of evil

Source: BBC

BBC Radio Scotland ‘Thought for the Day’

Broadcast on Tue 27th Jan 2015

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK – 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. The news was filled with moving accounts of Auschwitz survivors speaking to the world about their experiences. Two things stood out for me: first, the survivor who said that she did not believe this could never happen again; and second, the thought that there is no ‘us and them’ when it comes to evil. The seeds of evil lie dormant within each one of us. In unusual circumstances we could become camp guards, or one of the prisoners who was willing to execute other prisoners.

In this Thought, I was feeling my way towards these conclusions. One of the ways in which we insulate ourselves from the horrors of the holocaust is by locating the events in the distant past, in a foreign land, ruled by madmen. It is perhaps too disturbing to contemplate that the holocaust was recent (1 in 6 Scots today were alive at the liberation of Auschwitz), nearby (in ‘civilized’ Western Europe), and enjoyed wide support from ‘ordinary’ people.  It is terrifying to think that Hitler’s deputies may have been in their right minds.

If such an ideology could grip a whole nation back then, then why not now?

Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the ‘banality of evil’ strikes a chord here.  She observed Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann was one of the chief architects of the holocaust. Arendt observed that here was a man who was not conventionally evil – he was rational, clear-thinking, and fiercely loyal to his cause. There was nothing of the theatre of evil about him – no gold teeth, purring white cats, fat cigars, bubbling cauldrons. He was a bureaucrat, acting without moral depth. His brand of evil was banal.

The danger here is that evil can, under certain circumstances, masquerade as common sense, particularly when it strides the decks of a vast, floating ideology. The task of remembering, therefore, is not only to remember the past, but to remember ourselves, and to examine what passes in our world for common sense.

We need more than freedom of speech for a civilised society

Source: BBCOur freedom of speech is once again under attack. Twelve people lie dead in France, and a satirical magazine has been silenced – for now.

The attacks are, of course, indefensible; the outpouring of anger and grief is entirely appropriate. But I think this incident also invites some self-reflection on the part of the defenders of liberal freedoms; those who claim to represent a civilised society. If we believe we have the freedom to criticise to the point of mockery, then we must also be willing to set the sights on ourselves.

Satire has a long tradition. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices” and we can see it being artfully employed from Baalam’s Ass; through Hogarth,  Austen and Burns; to today’s Private Eye.  How can there be anything to criticise in such a long and distinguished tradition?

Satire justifies itself by claiming its arrows have a legitimate target. Typically, these are people who are pompous (Malvolio), hypocritical (Holy Willie’s Prayer), or in power (The Madness of George Dubya). They have set themselves up in some kind of way; and in doing so, they appear to be legitimate targets for being knocked down. The law itself recognizes this: it is much harder for a politician or someone in public office to win a defamation case than it is for a private individual. Society recognises that public figures must bear public scrutiny – and that may include “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule.”

But what about a whole religion? Do religions set themselves up in the same way? Of course they make truth-claims, which can be challenged (and so do secular liberals).  Is a whole religion (as distinct from the pompous or hypocritical people within it) a legitimate target for satire?

I remember being profoundly disturbed by seeing some of the songs from The Book of Mormon being performed. I don’t think Mormonism is remotely plausible, and some of their practices are faintly amusing. But the excoriating treatment it gets from the musical is just small and ugly. The target is too easy; the audience are invited to participate in a queasy smugness that is itself hypocritical. I don’t want to live in that sort of world.

At its worst, satire is veiled aggression. True, it is the aggression of the pen and not the gun, but it is a kind of violence nevertheless. If we pour petrol on a fire, we should not be surprised if we get burned. (Which is not to justify the terrorist acts.) I have been disturbed by some of the liberal rhetoric resulting from the incident in France.  Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, who was killed yesterday, said that it was his aim to target Islam until it “became as banal as the Catholic Church”. Peter Brookes, the Times Cartoonist, said that humour is important “to kick these people out of existence.”

Satire that aims at the destruction of people we don’t like (or who are simply different, or foolish, or credulous, or weak) needs to take a long hard look at itself. The distinction between targets that are legitimate, and those that are not, is not an issue of freedom of speech. It’s a moral issue. Of course we have the freedom to lampoon, mock, ridicule and expose whomever we choose. That is the privilege of freedom of speech.

But the mark of a civilised society is one in which we are very careful about when and where we use it.

When love awakens; when it’s not too late

BBC Radio Scotland ‘Thought for the Day’

Broadcast on Mon 29th Dec 2014

Now and again we catch glimpses of where our loved ones dwell within our hearts. I say glimpses because, for much of the time, those we know well are so much part of the furniture of our lives, we rarely connect with our truest feelings for them.

The true depth of our feelings comes out only in response to unusual circumstances – a loved one dies, or goes missing, or is injured.  Or perhaps, in the middle of the night, when our unconscious mind floats free, we get in touch with the raw edge of our love.  We dream; we wake; and it feels as if we have landed on the ground floor of the truest truth of our feelings for another.

Another such unusual circumstance is the plight of those waiting for news of loved ones following the disappearance of the AirAsia flight over the weekend. As I write, bodies are being recovered from the Java Sea. But yesterday, it was all about waiting: anxious relatives in airport lounges. Hour after hour. Hoping.

In this Thought for the Day I was interested in exploring the idea of whether or not we can harness the insights gained at these tragic moments, without the need for the tragedy. Is it possible to stop, reflect, pay attention to others – in a way that will honour our real ground-floor feelings for them?

Of course, deep-down feelings can be ambivalent. We may find difficult feelings down there as well. But for some reason, the love still goes on – even from the estranged child who turns up at her father’s funeral. The love goes on.

On such occasions, it is too late to convey that love. But at other times – when the truth comes to us in the night, say – we have the morning to make amends. It must be agony for the friends and relatives of those  who, at this moment, are being pulled from the sea: for us, these insights are a gift, to remind us to live out our deepest loves – while we still can.

How can Christmas speak to tragedy?

Another tragedy has befallen Glasgow in the run up to Christmas. Last year, it was a helicopter crashing on the roof of the Clutha bar, killing ten. This year a bin lorry lost control and killed six outside Queen Street Station.

Such tragedies are always new, and are never new.

They are new, shockingly new, to those caught up in them: the victims, the families, the onlookers, the cities and places where they occur. People who set out on a shopping trip one morning never return; lives are shattered beyond repair.

At the same time, such tragedies are never new. Tragedies raise their ugly head all over the world every day. War, famine, accident, disease: at times the news can seem like a perennial carousel, on which the four horsemen circle endlessly on their apocalyptic steeds.

With each new headline, I wonder how I’d respond. I wonder what local clergy and community leaders will say. Another tragedy? What more can be said than was said last time, the time before, the time before that…

There is no answer to the question of suffering. There are only different ways of asking it. People of faith ask how a good, all-powerful God can allow it. Others may ask ‘why him?’ or ‘why now?’ Behind these questions may lurk bigger ones: Is the universe a good or safe place to be? Is anyone looking out for us? Will it turn out all right in the end?

The only honest answer to the question of suffering – however put – is ‘I don’t know.’ Yet there is something else that we can put alongside this answer which is meaningful, even if it does not amount to an answer as such. This thing is called Christmas – bear with me.

The world we live in has room for tragedy. We inhabit physical bodies and physical space. Our comfort and survival in this world hangs on the fragile network of nerves and sinews and blood vessels that keep us balanced on our perch. Bullets and bin lorries can career out of control, wrecking our bodies and leaving us dead or disabled. This is the world in which we live.

The Christmas story affirms this flesh in which we live. It proclaims that human flesh, and all matter, is good; it announces God’s coming in the flesh and blood and mucus of a new-born baby. It proclaims that ‘God is with us’ – not in some airy ‘spiritual’ sense – but with teeth that chew, hands that chisel, feet that bleed. Jesus must have hammered his thumb, suffered toothache, grazed his knees…

The Christmas story agrees with us that the world is full of tragedy – Herod slaughters the innocents – but it also announces to us that the world as we know it is not a mistake. God has taken the same risk as those shoppers in George Square, and has walked the pavements of this world. He was not finished by a bin lorry on a Glasgow pavement, but by Pilate on the ‘stone pavement’ (‘Gabbatha’ in Aramaic), where his death-sentence was delivered.

The New Testament promises a future in which there will be ‘no more crying, or sorrow, or tears, or pain’ in a new heaven and earth. But that’s jumping ahead. For those touched by tragedy this Christmas, there are no answers: but there is the news that God has endured the risky mess that is human experience.

Suffering is still suffering; but it need not be made worse by the fear that we are alone in a world that is ultimately cruel and inhospitable. Christmas announces that God has endorsed frail flesh; the material world is good; and for all our tragedies, we are not alone.

Our flight from plurals

P1060738If language forms culture, it’s also true that it reflects it. As culture changes, so too our vocabulary must adapt. My formative years at University knew nothing of words such as email, selfie, megabits, internet and so on. I vividly remember Trevor McDonald on News at Ten in the early ’90s heralding the coming of a great step-change in communication – ‘the information super-highway’ as he called it.

Language must and will adapt. I’m not one for saying that every innovation is a dumbing down (though some clearly are.) But some shifts in language signal cultural trends that invite reflection.

I’m thinking of the tendency to confuse plurals with singulars, as if we have all-of-a-sudden become the Queen. We are not amused. This tendency has been around for a long time. (When, for example, did singular ‘thee and thou’ go out of fashion, to be replaced with (the then plural) ‘ye and you’?)

Two, more recent, examples, are interesting. One is the tendency to to replace ‘his’ or ‘her’ with ‘their’, used as a singular.  “Reply to their tweet.” This is common where the gender of the person is not clear, and ‘his or her’ would look clumsy. Apparently, this was acceptable usage in the 16th century; to me it grates on the ear.  It sounds as odd as saying, for example, “Those apple is for eating.”

The other example is the old chestnut pictured above – using ‘less’ when we mean ‘fewer’. After the party there was less cake, and fewer biscuits. Not fewer cake and less biscuits. Coke is not the only offender. Supermarket checkouts have been guilty of accepting baskets with ’10 items or less.’ Some would say this doesn’t matter: the distinction between a smaller pile (less), and a smaller count of things in the pile (fewer), is irrelevant: in some other languages the distinction is not made. I had this debate with a linguistics expert at Oxford once – he was German – and he told me the distinction was pointless. So I found a cunning exception: if you were a running a salmon farm, and were concerned about yields, you would be very interested to know that last year there was not less salmon, but there were fewer. (Said expert was not impressed…)

So does it matter? There could be perfectly good reasons for the loss of thou and thee (a less formal society), the singular use of ‘them’ and ‘their’ (a more gender-conscious society), or the eroding distinction between less and fewer (there is no practical difference). Even if the reason is simply that the teaching of English is less rigorous today, so what? Or would we say this is a bad reason for such changes – the thin end of a subtle wedge? Will it soon become acceptable to conflate effect and affect, exceed and excel, practise and practise ?

I wonder whether the flight from plurals is a reflection of the ongoing process of individualisation in culture? This is not a new process – the Reformation (every Man his own interpreter of Scripture) is generally seen as a starting point. But it has accelerated in recent decades, leading to the cult of the celebrity, the (lone) romantic hero of stage and screen, and the rapid rise of the one-person household. In short, we think ‘I’ and ‘me’, not ‘we’ and ‘us’.

Do the changes in our language provide us with a coal-mine canary regarding social change? Is there are link between our flight from plurals, and the epidemic of loneliness in society, the bonus culture in big business (it’s about what one person contributed, not many), and the narcissistic tendencies of social media?

I don’t know.  But it may be worth keeping a watchful eye on that little yellow bird.

Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder

  BBC image

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. In the case of Emily Thornberry’s tweet from Rochester, this is an understatement. Labour’s shadow attorney general was pressured into resigning after posting the picture on Twitter, with the caption ‘Image from #Rochester’.

Everyone seems to know what this tweet is about. UKIP said she was sneering and looking down her nose. The resident of the house accused her of being a snob. David Cameron called the tweet ‘completely appalling.’ Labour MP Chris Bryant called it disrespectful, and said he’d be furious if it happened on his patch. John Mann called the whole episode ‘horrendous’ for Labour.

But step back for a moment: can we be sure what was intended by this tweet? And what else does the tweet tell us from the reaction it has caused?

On the face of it, the tweet is entirely innocent. There is no overt judgement being made. It is purely and simply descriptive: it’s an image from Rochester entitled ‘Image from Rochester.’

However, it is not only an image, but a deliberately chosen image that is replete with symbols: the terraced house, the white van, the flags of St George, and the classical pillars. This makes it fertile ground for interpretation. And the weeds of speculation as to her meaning have grown wild.

Thornberry might have helped her case if she had come out with a convincing explanation of what she did mean by the tweet. Had she tweeted, ‘Great to see national pride on show in #Rochester’ the image would have excited no comment. But to be fair to her, the storm around this image has come not from what she did say, but from what others have assumed she was saying. To the pure all things are pure; it is her interpreters who have read into the symbols the kinds of foul meanings they suspect. So the question is, who has the dirty mind?

This whole episode is a reminder of the power of the symbol. It is also a warning to remember the inherent ambiguity of symbols. For example, on the one hand, the image could represent British economic success and social mobility: working class people enjoying home ownership, running small businesses, and feeling proud to be English. On the other hand, it could represent a new breed of nouveau-riche  far-right little-Englanders, that some people like to sneer at. Who’s to say?

I’m deeply disconcerted by the widespread assumption that we ‘know’ what this is about. In the past, the mob ‘knew’ who was and wasn’t a witch.  Perhaps Emily Thornberry herself didn’t quite know why she was tweeting the picture – perhaps the vivid cluster of symbols caught her eye? Perhaps she was simply offering  it for social comment? (Ironically she, not the picture, became the subject.)

It is worth reflecting on this furore. The most revealing thing is not what Emily Thornberry thinks, but what her critics assume. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine how this scenario would have played out had the by-election taken place in, say, Aberdeen: a terraced fisherman’s cottage, with the fish-van parked outside, and the saltire flying from the upstairs window. Tweet: ‘Image from #Aberdeen.’ Far from outrage, I suspect the hearts of the critics would have been warmed by the quaint vernacular nationalism of the scene.

Is it, then, that the flag of St George has become toxic? Does it now represent the badge of the far-right? How is it that the Saltire is a successful brand image selling Scotland around the globe, but the red cross is fast becoming a symbol of xenophobia?

Nigel Farage has accused New Labour of thinking the flag is somehow is unpleasant, backward-looking and nasty.  Maybe he’s right. Maybe that’s really what this tweet reveals.

Depending on who’s looking at it, of course.

What use a Poppy?

BBC Radio Scotland ‘Thought for the Day’

Broadcast on Mon 10th Nov 2014

I feel uneasy when I see the solemn ranks of the great and good gathered round a war memorial. I can’t help but feel that the whole spectacle is really a PR exercise for the war machine.  Which politician would be brave enough to stand up and say this? Do they really feel deep gratitude for those soldiers who lost their lives?

History is messier than this: ‘dying for your country’ is rarely a simple act of heroism. Who even knew what awaited him when he went over the top? The War Poets saw through the disguise. So did the conscientious objectors, and some of the mothers of today’s dead soldiers – who have the raw honesty to admit they think their sons died in vain – in Iraq, in Afghanistan.

I feel uneasy, and yet recently I was brought up short. On a visit to the poppy factory, I discovered a group of ex-servicemen whose lives were being re-built around the task of making poppies. “It’s a military environment around here; these are real friends,” one ex-serviceman said.

For a while, I got down off my pacifist high-horse. For these men, poppies are not about civic respectability: they are reminders of dead and wounded comrades. They are a creative task around which a living community has grown.

In future, I will wear my poppy with pride: not out of respect for the politicians who lied to us about Iraq, ignored a million people marching to say ‘no’ to war, and went ahead and laid the ground for ISIS to sweep through the fertile crescent like a modern Babylonian Empire.

I will wear my poppy to remember a handful of men, doing their best to support one another, and in some small way, to heal the wounds of war.

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