RiverfordRiverford Field Kitchen

Today’s my wife’s birthday. I can’t say how I feel in prose and am not the person to do it in rhyme (I tried).

But Bobby Hebb’s Sunny does…

Sunny, yesterday my heart was filled with rain.
Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain.

Oh, the dark days are done, and the bright days are here,
My sunny one shines so sincere,
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny, thank you for the sunshine bouquet.
Sunny, thank you for the love you’ve brought my way.

You gave to me your all and all,
Now I feel about ten feet tall,
Oh, Sunny one so true, I love you.

Sunny, thank you for the truth you’ve let me see.
Yeah sunny, thank you for the facts from A to Z.

Oh my life was torn like wind blown sand,
Then a rock was formed when you held my hand.
Sunny one so true, I love you.

Wikipedia says:

Hebb wrote the song in the 48 hours following a double tragedy on November 22, 1963, the day U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Hebb’s older brother Harold was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub. Hebb was devastated by both events and many critics say that those events & critically the loss of his older brother inspired the lyrics & tune. According to Hebb, he merely wrote the song as an expression of a preference for a “sunny” disposition over a “lousy” disposition following the murder of his brother.

Works for me.

We are going out to lunch at the Riverford Field Kitchen… “where our organic veg is the star”. We went there once before and had a superb meal. As a keen cook and  ex-farmer, my wife knows all about the importance of top quality produce.

one wild song
For a present, she wanted Paul Heiney’s One Wild Song: A Voyage in a Lost Son’s Wake. Heiney uses the same words she does to describe grief (“laughter remembered”) and ocean crossing (“night sky reflecting in the sea like sailing in a bowl”). Here is the blurb:

When Countrywise presenter Paul Heiney’s son Nicholas committed suicide aged 23, Paul and his wife, Times columnist Libby Purves, were rocked to the core. Nicholas had been a highly gifted promising young man, albeit he had struggled to keep his head above water at times as severe depression slowly dragged him down over many years.

Nicholas was a keen sailor, with several of his posthumously-published writings having a nautical theme. To try to reconnect with this happier memory of his son, Paul decides to set out – alone – on a voyage he would have liked them to have embarked upon together.

Cape Horn is the sailor’s Everest. One of the most remote and bleak parts of the world, it takes courage, physical strength and mental fortitude to face its tempestuous seas, violent winds and barren landscape. During the voyage Paul finds a peace of mind and a way to face the future without his son.

Poignant, moving, funny, thought provoking and beautifully written, Paul’s account of setting his own course through seemingly insurmountable grief makes for a powerful story. Injected with humour, perceptiveness and philosophy, recounting his highs, lows, frustrations and triumphs, the honesty and openness of Paul’s story makes this very personal account a universal tale.

We already have, and recommend, Libby Purves’s (Paul Heiney’s wife) deeply-moving book about her son and his poetry The Silence at the Song’s End.

Finally, to end on a more cheerful note, here is Cher singing Sunny. Is she trying to get something “organic” off her boot? They don’t make ’em like this any more!

Transcendent eloquence is critical

105786_d0097bAlicia and Frank open up in the kitchen

My last post indulged my dismay over the poor quality of the UK’s current political discourse. But my post before that cited Sally Miller Gearhart’s account of far more constructive dialogue, in her case between loggers and environmentalists. Not only in this conversation was Gearhart open to personal change (their discourse was dialogic) but she was critical of the impotence and inadequacy of her own original position. This, then, is a fourth characteristic of transcendent eloquence: it is not only philosophic, comparative and dialogic, but also critical (and, as I will discuss in later posts, it is transformational).

Saying that transcendent eloquence is critical needs explanation. There is no shortage of criticism in the UK’s current political debate! But we need our politicians to deliver us far less of their simplistic assessment of others’ ideas and actions and far more thoughtful evaluation of the powers and limits of their own positions.

When a politician ducks and weaves as an interviewer asks “who would have the most to lose if your side prevails?” they confirm my least-charitable bias that they are neither well-meaning nor moral people but merely out to subvert others for personal gain.

A beautiful demonstration of this came from a most unexpected source this week: Episode 12 of Season 6 of The Good Wife, called “The Debate”, which screened in the UK on More4 on Thursday. You may still be able to catch up with it on the Web. Here:

Alicia [our eponymous heroine] takes on Frank Prady in their first televised debate for the State’s Attorney race, which gets interrupted by the jury verdict of two police officers charged with unlawfully killing a black man. During the interruption Alicia and Frank hold an impromptu debate [in the kitchen].

And here, the brilliant writers of this series show how the constraints of the TV debate herd speakers towards meaningless sound bites, while a more candid conversation (that takes place off-line) leads both parties to Gerhardt’s conclusion:

… it is never individual men/people who are my “enemy” but complex systems of exploitation that have emerged from centuries of alienation and perpetuation of violence; it is these systems and that consciousness – not the people – that I can, with integrity, hope to change.

In this episode, someone is capturing the discussion on a cell phone. No doubt, in future episodes, it will be leaked and “go viral”, shifting public support in Alicia’s favour. Is that my wishful thinking or merely the best democracy we can hope for these days? [What’s the significance of the Crown Prosecution Service decision yesterday to drop charges against nine journalists accused of making illegal payments to public officials? What deal was struck?]

Spoiler alert:

A glance ahead at The Good Wife episode summaries on Wikipedia has just told me that

Alicia is shocked to learn that voting machines were implanted with hacking microchips that apparently attempted to divert votes from Frank Prady to Alicia. The Election Review Board is prompted to investigate and she is offered representation from a respected civil rights lawyer by the Democratic Party.

I should have seen that coming. But this is only fiction, of course.

Why am I so cynical about UK politics?

275A8E0D00000578-0-image-a-3_1428532817972 David Cameron speaks to a packed crowd of party activists…

275FD59B00000578-3031200-image-m-4_1428533838395… or not!

We’ve reached that point in the run up to a General Election in the UK where every political party has presented a manifesto saying: “Vote for us. We’ll make everything OK”. Pundits have pointed out the flaws in their numbers. And we are left with repetition of empty promises and increasingly offensive characterisations of political opponents.

I ask myself: is it just me or is UK political discourse really as feeble as it now seems?

There are lots of isolated data points to support my gut feel. For example, news today that Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecution, is dropping the child abuse case against Lord Janner. This is despite nine months spent studying interviews of more than 20 victims. Said Pete Saunders, spokesman for The National Association for People Abused in Childhood, “The message here is that if your are old or important you can still get away with it.” The true subject is not, of course, Lord Janner but the former UK Prime Minister whose vile reputation has spread across the world.

For more than gut feel and one-off illustrations, I looked up The National Centre for Social Research’s 32nd report on British Social Attitudes

Concerns about the levels of political engagement amongst voters in Britain have often been expressed in the wake of much lower turnouts at recent general elections. Soon after coming to power the Coalition said it wanted to restore our faith in politics. Has it succeeded?

Long-term trends towards greater voter disconnection have not been reversed during the Coalition’s time in office:

  • Only 17% trust governments most of the time, just as only 16% did in 2009, but far less than the 38% who did in 1986.
  • Fifty-seven per cent believe they have a duty to vote, in line with the 58% who did so in 2009, but down from 76% in 1987.

Coalition government has become unpopular since 2010: only 29% now prefer coalition to single party government, down from 45% before the Coalition was formed.

So it’s not just me feeling increasingly  “disengaged and disconnected”. Strangely, I can’t download the full report but I found these data from the 30th edition:


A detailed look shows:

  1. People across all age groups have become less politically aligned – in the sense of “I’m a Tory” – and less interested in politics in recent years (this is the period effect).
  2. People born in the 1960s are more likely to have lost their political allegiances as they grew older than those born in the 1930s (the lifecycle effect).
  3. Each new generation is less likely to be politically engaged than its predecessor (the generation effect).

These effects together confirm that people of all age groups have become less interested in politics and political participation, and this trend is accelerating.

So, if more and more people are indeed becoming as cynical as me, the question becomes “why?”

The most obvious explanation for the unintelligibility and incoherence of our public conversations is simply that most of our politicians are just very third-rate. Their greed, arrogance and immorality prompted Baroness Warnock (arguably Britain’s leading thinker on morality, education and mind) to declare herself ashamed to be British. David Cameron might protest that accusations that the Conservatives are “the party of the rich” make him “more angry than almost anything else”. But how can someone with such a narrow and privileged background (PR and politics) begin to comprehend the plight of the poor?

Other causes of cynicism are:

  • The predominance of experts, widening the gap between the technical discourse and the discussions of the electorate. Who can possibly reconcile differences in the International Monetary Fund and the UK Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the UK economy?
  • The triumph of advertising over thoughtful deliberation as the preferred way to campaign (as clearly documented in Part 4 of Adam Curtis’ acclaimed Century of the Self).
  • The structure and function of the media – such as 24-hour TV news channels – which favour short, shallow, photogenic messages and which have an insatiable need for “news”, particularly the sordid and the sensational. The sound bite, due to its brevity, eclipses the broader context in which it was spoken. And this makes it the weapon of choice of spin doctors whose disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics seek to mislead.
  • The unequal demands of the goals of late capitalism and democratic processes, manifest most recently in the European Union’s latest threat to slap Google with a $6 billion fine over alleged antitrust violations.
  • The transformation of the public into consumers that results when politics becomes a subset of marketing. In Century of the Self Part 4 (appropriately entitled “Eight people sipping wine in Kettering”), Derek Draper – Assistant to Peter Mandelson 1992-1995 – explains how focus group politics erodes political discourse as follows:

The point about focus group politics is that there isn’t one because people are contradictory and irrational and so you have a problem in terms of deciding what you are going to do if all you do is listen to a mass of individual opinions that are forever fluctuating and don’t really have any coherence and crucially are not set in contact.

So that’s why people can say “you know I want lower taxes and better public services”. Well of course they do. You know you say do you want to pay more taxes to get better public services and people are less sure. They then don’t believe that if they pay more taxes they will be spent on better public services.

So you end up in this quagmire and the truth is the politicians have to say look this is what I believe, I believe you should pay slightly more taxes to make better public services and I pledge that I am competent enough to use that money wisely do you want now to vote for me yes or no. And that’s what Blair has failed to do.

Tony Blair turned around and tries to feed back to them what they already believe and give them what they believe is sort of an individual incoherent contradictory nonsense and that’s all he has to offer. And then he wonders why people don’t get him. It isn’t that they don’t get him it’s that they’re looking for someone to do something that they can’t do themselves which is actually come up with a coherent political opinion that they might have faith in.

  • The devolution of the government into multiple special interest groups and the evolution of lobbyists and political action groups (PACs) as the primary speakers in public discourse.
  • And, finally, the theme of many of my posts, the inadequacy of our conventional ways of dealing with moral conflict.

Someone please tell me I am wrong. If you disagree, please post a comment.

Meanwhile, I leave you with this…


Transcendent discourse is dialogic


Over the last few months I have been posting on the topic of moral conflict: the kind of disagreement that arises when social worlds collide. Time to return to our exploration of Pearce and Littlejohn’s Dialectic of Expression and Suppression and the notion of transcendent discourse.


Transcendent eloquence, you may recall, is philosophic, comparative, dialogic, critical and transformative. We’ve discussed what is meant by philosophic (seeks to uncover assumptions about knowledge, being and values behind the conflict) and by comparative (tries to create categories that can compare otherwise incommensurate systems). Now let’s look at what “dialogic” means.

The central characteristic of dialogue is that we take the risk of being changed. For we enter into dialogue to shift the debate from statements designed to convince to statements designed to explore.

Sally_Miller_GearhartSally Miller Gearhart

The power of allowing “transcendent eloquence” to change us is shown in this 1995 account by “retired activist” Sally Miller Gearhart:

Five years ago when I’d see a logging truck loaded with redwoods or old oak, I’d shoot the driver a finger. He’d (could it ever be a she?) shoot one right back at me and then go home and put a bumper sticker on his truck that would read, “Hey, Environmentalist, try wiping your ass with a spotted owl.” Three years ago, I was a shade more gentle. I would stop dead in my tracks, glare at the driver of a logging truck and make sure he read my lips: “Fuck you, mister.” Then he’d go home and add another bumper sticker to his truck: “Earth first! We’ll log the other planets later.”

These days… I’m practicing acknowledging loggers as “fellow travellers on Planet Earth,” as Trudy the bag lady would say, doing what they do just as I do what I do; I’m laying off any attempt to change or even judge them, and I’m trusting that acknowledgement of our kinship can make a positive difference in the texture of all our lives.

When I meet an erstwhile “enemy,” instead of moving immediately into horse posture… or splitting the scene entirely (fight or flight), … I look for the joining point, the place where we are the same, where we can meet each other as beings who share the experience of living together on this planet. I introduce that into the conversation, and we talk about the thing that belongs to both of us… When I can’t find any common ground on which to stand with some “enemy,” like a logger, then I ask him to take me into his world for a day or two so I can hear him and his buddies talk about what it means to be out of work in a poor country with family to feed.

When all’s said and done, I measure these encounters by my feelings, I like “joining” better than fighting or running away, better even than marching or rallying to a cause… I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that it is never individual men/people who are my “enemy” but complex systems of exploitation that have emerged from centuries of alienation and perpetuation of violence; it is these systems and that consciousness – not the people – that I can, with integrity, hope to change. I’ve learned that my pain, anger and/or hatred accomplish nothing except to render me ineffectual and to increase the problem by adding to the pain, anger and hatred that already burden the world. I’ve learned that whole parts of my identified “enemy” are really my own self, walking around in a different costume. And, in the moments where we found some joining space, I’ve learned that, though I still may not choose to spend my time with him, I do feel love for that killer, that exploiter.

To tell the truth, I don’t regret a single day of my past as an activist. I figure that the desire to stop injustices and heal the earth is an honest and an honourable one. It’s a big part of who I have been as a being incarnated on this planet. That’s why I’ve been here to speak out and confront, to crusade and fight, to be involved in those struggles up to my eyeballs. I wouldn’t know what I know, and probably wouldn’t be making the changes I’m making , without those experiences of activism. But right now, I’m getting clear and unmistakable signals that it’s time for another approach. If I can still hold strong to my standard of what is just and decent and appropriate behaviour for human beings and yet go about my life with a new awareness, with joy in the process instead of my former debilitating pain, and if I can do all this without creating and maintaining “enemies,” then I have to try it.

Gearheart, S. M. (1995, September). Notes from a recovering activist. Sojourner: The Women’s Forum 21(1), 8-11

Bloody politicians

contaminated blood

While the featherweight leaders of the UK political parties exchange lies and slurs in the build up to the General Election, another story has re-emerged of such appalling significance that it, too, has been allowed to pass by with little discussion. This is the 25 year-old “news” that at least 1,800 Britons have been “murdered” by tainted National Health Service (NHS) blood transfusions. The real scandal is the way that its victims have been denied justice.

Only Scotland has held an inquiry and this reported back on 25 March 2015. It has taken six years and cost about £12m to complete. It was led by a former High Court judge, Lord Penrose, who did not have the power to summon witnesses from outside Scotland – a major limitation, since health policy before 1999 was controlled by Westminster and many crucial decisions were made by England-based politicians and civil servants.

Between 1970 and 1991, thousands of people were infected with Hepatitis C and/or HIV through blood products supplied by the NHS.

The total number of victims is not known, but the Department of Health recently estimated it was 30,000 UK-wide.

There are many unanswered questions surrounding this public health disaster. An inquiry was a key election promise of the SNP and was announced in 2007 when the SNP came to power.

However, there was then a delay of nearly two years before the inquiry opened – a delay which was criticised by a senior Scottish judge.

This is the first statutory inquiry in the UK – one with the power to force witnesses to give evidence.

274718E400000578-3034412-image-a-67_1428711419745Caroline Flint, then Health Minister, who claimed key documents had been destroyed

Perhaps yet another cover up should come as no surprise.

One Department of Health memo, leaked five years ago, showed civil servants attempting to work out how to spend the money the NHS might save from the deaths of hundreds of haemophiliacs (whom they appeared to regard as a drain on resources). ‘Of course, the maintenance of the life of a haemophiliac is itself expensive,’ it began. ‘Those who are already doomed will generate savings which more than cover the cost of testing blood donations.’

Vaccines that could have prevented deaths were ruled too expensive. Paperwork was lost. Repeated calls for public inquiries were rejected on cost grounds.

Caroline Flint, then Public Health Minister, caused outrage by claiming key documents detailing the contaminated blood scandal had been destroyed ‘in error’ by a junior member of staff

Then, after victims set up a privately funded one in 2007, the Department of Health withheld vital papers, citing confidentiality, and refused to give evidence.

A couple of years later, Caroline Flint, then Public Health Minister, caused further outrage by claiming that key documents detailing the scandal had been destroyed ‘in error’ by a junior member of staff.

Several victims who have tried to sue also found that crucial medical records had gone suspiciously missing.

Thus the UK Prime Minister’s remorse sounds particularly hollow:

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Mr Cameron said it was difficult to imagine the “feeling of unfairness that people must feel at being infected with something like Hepatitis C or HIV as a result of totally unrelated treatment within the NHS”.

He added: “To each and every one of these people I would like to say sorry on behalf of the government for something that should not have happened.”

The meaning of repentance, I was taught, is not saying you are sorry but making sure it never happens again.

Yesterday we learned that the French have convicted Arlette Ricci:

The heir to the Nina Ricci perfume and fashion fortune has been convicted of tax fraud by a Paris court after hiding millions in an offshore HSBC account.

Arlette Ricci, 73, was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a €1 million (£720,000;$1.1m) fine.

But will the UK’s government ever convict its reckless bankers, tax fraudsters or negligent medics?

Excuse my despair with our corrupt politics.

un petit malentendu


Youngest daughter has acquired a French boyfriend. She speaks little French and boyfriend less English…

the course of true love never did run smooth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare.

Time to offer my indispensable phrase:

je pense qu’il existe ici un petit malentendu

(I think there is a little misunderstanding here.)


A kangaroo loose in the top paddock

This is an important post but not one I’d recommend to those unwilling to venture into the darker reaches of human psychology. What triggered this line of thought was, as usual, a combination of two things: something in the news and something I had been reading.

The news item first: “being overweight cuts the risk of dementia, according to the largest and most precise investigation into the relationship”.

The team at Oxon Epidemiology and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysed medical records from 1,958,191 people aged 55, on average, for up to two decades.

Their most conservative analysis showed underweight people had a 39% greater risk of dementia compared with being a healthy weight.

But those who were overweight had an 18% reduction in dementia – and the figure was 24% for the obese.

This is an unexpected and unwelcome discovery. It contradicts years of assertions to the contrary. It is out of line with Conservative proposals to cut benefits to the obese… and is unsurprisingly, therefore, receiving minimum attention in the run up to the UK’s General Election.

I am suspicious of all health research, having been given so much contradictory advice over the years. Butter, for example, once thought bad for you is now considered good for you. I therefore want to know who funded the study because nearly always the outcome confirms the bias of its sponsors.

The size of the sample plus the lack of confirmation of prevailing views makes me think that for once the conclusion may be true. It also aligns with some statistically insignificant data points in my own experience: notably a fitness fanatic in the family who at 55 certainly shows signs of, how shall I put it, being “a sandwich short of a picnic”, having “the lights on, but nobody’s home”, or, as Aussie friends say, suffering “a kangaroo loose in the top paddock”. But that’s just my predisposition.

Get the truthThe second trigger to some deep and dark thoughts is the book I am reading. It’s Get the Truth (it finally pitched up from Amazon). This has prompted all sorts of reflections on my father’s history as a counter-terrorist (I’ll post on that later). The main text describes the techniques developed by three CIA interrogation experts to get people to tell them the truth. This is supplemented by valuable Appendices. In the first of these, Peter Romary (described as “an attorney, arbitrator, mediator, and internationally recognized expert and trainer in the areas of negotiation, risk management, threat assessment and management, conflict resolution, and litigation risk management”) discusses the application of the CIA’s methodology to everyday life. There’s lots to talk about here but one thing Romary sees fit to elaborate on – and that strikes home with force – is the matter of confirmation bias.

It’s tempting to dismiss confirmation bias as little more than the thought expressed in Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Boxer:

I am just a poor boy.
Though my story’s seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

But Romary notes:

What feeds confirmation bias, like many cognitive biases, is that we truly believe we’re objective and open-minded, when in many cases we’re really not. That’s difficult for a lot of people to swallow, but there is an easy way to show how it happens.

When I teach negotiation classes, I use a very simple experiment developed by the psychologist Bertram R. Forer to illustrate confirmation bias – it demonstrates what’s called the “Forer effect,” sometimes better known as “Barnum statements.” What I’m about to say here will probably get me into hot water with those who are fans of TV mediums and psychics, but here we go. When you look at how this works, you’ll see why so many purported psychics – and salespeople, for that matter – are believed, when what they’re doing is making statements that could apply to almost anyone.

Forer’s test is very simple to administer. All you have to do is come up with some fake personality test, and tell people in the group that the resulting analysis will be unique to each of them. In truth, their answers are irrelevant, because the result you give them is this single analysis that Forer himself came up with:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

As you can see, there are several statements in the results narrative that could, and do, apply to almost anyone, yet they are then qualified or even contradicted by others. If you ask the people in the group to provide their assessment of the accuracy of the analysis, you’ll find that across the board they’ll rate the results as highly accurate and applicable to them. The reason is that their tendency is to seek out the positive attributes. That confirms the positive things they think about themselves, which in turn causes them to interpret the entire analysis as an accurate reflection of their personalities. I, like many negotiation trainers, have used this test in my classes for years, and my students are invariably taken in by it.

The takeaway from this is just how important it is not to allow confirmation bias to creep in when somebody is attempting to influence you by saying something positive about you.

You might be thinking “well, there’s nothing too disturbing in all that”, and you’d be right… except that a page or so earlier Romary observes:

Through years of representing victims of domestic violence, I’ve come to recognize that the damage that’s done to the human psyche by physical and emotional abuse from someone the victim believes to be a loved one is unfathomable. It’s a difficult situation to discuss, let alone observe. But it can serve as a poignant example of the power of confirmation bias, as so many of my clients truly believed that their abusers loved them. To me, it was a reflection of the purity of the hearts of many of my clients, and what I can only describe as the evil, twisted nature of their abusers.

And this is where it all gets horribly personal. Because for 27 years I was married to someone who made my life hell. Her abuse was only ever emotional. That was enough. Time after time we went through the cycle of abuse and contrition. You might describe her as very bad tempered. Eventually I realised that she was mentally ill. I told myself it’s easy to cope when another’s disability is physical and visible; mental disability merits an extra special kind of love and understanding. I suppose nowadays you’d call her affliction Borderline Personality Disorder, borderline because it hovers on the edge of tolerable. When it came to an end she told me she had been having counselling for seventeen years.

Branded on my heart are certain thoughts:

  • abuse takes two – an abusee as well as an abuser,
  • communication is not what we say but everything we do,
  • love, capacity for caring, is not measured in pretty words but practical help.

Eventually I realised the whole system was her + me, and the best way to help her was to leave.

But oh those times I clutched at straws to confirm my bias that she must still love me!