Sunday, 25 March 2018

To believe, or not to believe (and I’m not talking about God)

To believe, or not to believe - no I’m not talking about God.

But I am talking about the News - with a capital N because it seems to be shouted at us from all corners of social media at the moment. But how much is actually true?

Some, of course, is verifiable. If England, say (just supposing), were to win a football match 1-0 there can be no dispute about the score. But the meaning of that score depends on who you believe - they might have played wonderfully and only the referee deprived them of another five goals, or they might have been lucky to scrape a win. 

And there are many times when even the facts can’t speak for themselves. Those of in the UK know that the promise to put £350,000,000 a week into the NHS after we leave the EU was a lie - but that didn’t stop politicians quoting it. This last week, some health service workers have been promised what looks, at first sight, like a generous pay rise. But when you work out their loss of real income over the last ten years this comes nowhere near making up for it.

Ideas ... facts ... the two become jumbled on social media. I’ve seen demands that supermarkets stop using single-use plastic - all very laudable, given the rubbish in our seas (verifiable) but without reminding us that significantly more energy is used to make glass bottles than plastic. I’ve seen a petition that demands the government does not sign a trade deal with the US as it will jeopardise the NHS - but without any evidence that is the case. Instinct tells me that such a deal is a Bad Idea, but that isn’t enough - I want to be presented with enough information to make an informed decision and not just sound-bites and petitions.

Does it matter? I think it does. In this instant-information world few of us have the time or inclination to research anything with enough vigour to develop informed opinions. We are dependent on the media to keep us informed - but the media simply feeds us snippets of largely unverifiable facts and great tracts of opinion. 

Which means politicians can talk about listening to the electorate safe in the knowledge that we have no idea what is true and what isn’t.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Moving on

As some of you know, I moved last year; and had to tackle the challenge of finding my feet in a town where I knew no one. Time after time I had to be the ‘new girl’. 

I travel. I’m used to meeting new people - fellow travellers take little encouragement to talk about the places they’ve visited and where they might go next. There’s even a standard introductory phrase: ‘Where are you from?’ It’s a phrase that invites someone to talk about him or herself, and it’s easy to develop a conversation from there.

There is no such standard introduction when meeting new people who are already established in their own social groups. I’ve tried: ‘How long have you lived in ...’ and received polite answers but it’s hard to move on from there, even when I try to pick up on something in their reply that I can ask about. It’s a salutary lesson.

For most people already have established friendship groups. Unlike travellers, they aren’t looking for new people to chat to. And so I have needed to be, if you like, pushier. I’ve made a point of giving people my phone number, asking for their’s, ringing and inviting them for coffee. I’ve knocked on doors of the flats where I live and offered tea. I’ve joined - what haven’t I joined! And it has paid off.

It’s not been easy - and it will take time to develop the sort of friendships that sustained me over the years I lived in my old house.

But ... or maybe that should be ‘and’ ... it takes effort, and sometimes more than a little bravado. I don’t always enjoy it, but I can do it. What is it like for someone with less confidence than I have? Someone with a disability who can’t get out there and edge into conversations? Working parents who have no time to chatter at the school gates? Working parents who spend ridiculous hours commuting and barely have energy for the children, let alone getting to know their neighbours?

I can do this - but many people find it difficult. Maybe that’s the lesson for us all - to make more space to welcome strangers, wherever they come from.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Dear Spring

Dear Spring,

Winter has had its time - really, it’s done its worst. We’ve had the complete repertoire - dark, wind, rain, snow, frost, blizzards, storms - and many of us have come out the other side a little chastened. Sometimes, here in the comfortable western economies, we assume we can control more or less everything. This winter was a brutal reminder that we can’t. People were stuck for hours in their cars. Pipes burst and left families without water. Electricity failed and the vulnerable were freezing. 

We’ve learned our lesson, honestly we have. Weather is a serious issue and we will respect it in the future. Promise. 

And so, Spring, don’t you think it’s time you turned up and cheered us all up a bit? I know you’ve provided a few carpets of snowdrops, but they’re looking a bit sorry for themselves after being deluged with snow. Surely it’s time for a daffodil or two? A splash of yellow to remind us what sunshine looks like? Fresh green leaves on the beech trees? Birds a-twittering and gathering bits of stuff to build nests? Enough warmth in the sun for us to take some of our woollies off?

In a couple of weeks the clocks will go forward. It is a structured reminder that longer days are coming - a device dreamed up by men and women to trick us into believing winter is behind us. We need the Weather to catch up.

Please, Spring, do the decent thing and bring us some sunny days. With daffodils.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Life in the open air.

Hopefully, by the time you read this, it will be a bit warmer. But goodness, hasn’t it been cold! Like almost everyone else, I’ve stayed indoors. Not only because that is the official advice (I’m not one for official advice, but not putting my life and the lives of those who might have to rescue me at risk seems common sense to me.). There was an eerie hush outside. Even the birds stopped twittering. My lovely town seemed to be holding its breath waiting for warmer weather. 

We in the UK make a fuss about weather. I’ve just come back from Nepal (as many of you know) where people respond more pragmatically. It’s hot ... wear something light and flimsy that keeps your skin covered from the burning fire. It’s chilly ... wear more clothes (I learned to wear a blanket while I was there), and join your neighbours round a fire.

And maybe it’s the neighbours that make such a difference. For most of life in rural Nepal is lived outside. Rooms are for cooking or sleeping in. Everything else happens in the open air. Lives are lived in public. Women sit in their doorways to pick over the rice to find stones.  Children flit from family to family. Young people do their homework on the kerbside. 

Which means that if anyone has a problem the street or the village knows - not via any gossipy grapevine, but simply by concerned word of mouth. The ups and downs of family life spill out into the street and become everyone’s concern. And everyone chips in to help find a solution.

The Nepali don’t need official advice when the weather is challenging. They don’t need a government to remind them to look in on vulnerable neighbours to make sure they are warm enough and haven’t run out of bread. It is simply second nature to take care of each other.

I know our climate, in the UK, makes outdoor living impossible for much of the year. But, as we hide behind our locked doors, or even grow huge hedges to ensure the privacy of our gardens, we also shut ourselves off from the possibility of communal nurturing that keeps the show on the road in so many developing countries. It is, I think, our loss.