Monday, 20 September 2010


Let me tell you about yoga. Forgive me if I sound like an insufferable hippy. (I'm really not. I wear socks with sandals really rather infrequently. And I dislike reggae intensely.)

Four years ago I thought yoga was for girls. I play football, end of story. Despite this, for various reasons not worth sharing now, I started to go along to yoga classes to support my partner. Six months later I was still going, and really enjoying it. Nonetheless my practice at this stage was a little sporadic, and yoga was languishing a long way behind football in my set of priorities.

Then a year ago I attended an ashtanga yoga class. It was 1 1/2 hours of serious work-out and I left shattered and very very intrigued. Over the last six months I've started to do ashtanga yoga regularly and now, it's fair to say, I LOVE IT. There are times (and I don't say this lightly) when I'd rather do yoga than play football.

My God.

Let me explain the attraction. Firstly the physical side of things. Football is great because it clears my mind, gives me an outlet for my physical energies, and leaves me mellow yet somewhat elated. Yoga also has that effect on me. Particularly ashtanga yoga which is more strenuous than other forms of yoga, and so appeals to my desire to be physically stretched. It gives me the high.

I also have a sense of progress. I am no natural yogi; I am bony and angular and not naturally flexible. When I started I had trouble sitting cross-legged. Yet now I can sit with cross legs, I can touch my toes with ease (even put my palms on the ground), I can stay in a head stand for a couple of minutes... in short, there are a multitude of postures that were once beyond me and now are quite achievable.

It has benefited my health. I used to suffer from chronic lower back pain but yoga has now got that under control. (As it happens I have had back troubles again recently, of a different sort, but this seems unrelated.) I have noticed a dramatic increase in lung capacity (all the positions in yoga are coordinated with the breath, so one learns to regulate one's breathing and to breath more deeply). The other day I swam a kilometre for the first time in my life (I'm shit at swimming); this was with almost no swimming practice, but lots of yoga.

I have much more control over different parts of my body. Whereas playing football benefits only a subset of the muscles in the body, yoga does the lot. Before I did yoga there were whole areas of my body that were weak and unutilised - that I didn't know were there. Now I have awareness of these areas, and can use them (for instance when lifting heavy things, instead of busting my back like I used to).

Yoga isn't just physical though. It also challenges and benefits my mental/ spiritual side. Firstly this takes place through regulating the breath. I have learned to breath deeply and slowly, thereby lowering the heart rate, and naturally calming the mind. This aids concentration and eases stress: when we're stressed our breathing tends towards shallowness and hyperventilation; by dealing with the physical symptoms of stress, some of the mental symptoms are also relieved.

Yoga also builds awareness of the present moment - what the Buddhists would call "mindfulness". Yoga requires awareness of one's whole body and full involvement in the here and now. Just as when I play football I am entirely focussed on the game without thought or worry of the past or future, so too in yoga I am freed of these distractions. Yoga seems somehow more beneficial though, because my mental state remains calm. (I'm not calm when I play football!)

I used to meditate regularly, but since having a child have found this very difficult. My yoga practice is a pretty good substitute. I find that the physicality of it allows me to maintain concentration in circumstances when I find sitting meditation impossible (e.g. with the child charging about the place). Many of the benefits of meditation - a calming and clearing of the mind, an awareness of the present, etc - can also be achieved through yoga.

Let me end by saying that I'm still shit at yoga. Or, to be more precise, I still can't do the vast majority of the poses in the ashtanga "full flow". Of course, that doesn't really mean I'm shit. Yoga is refreshingly non-competitive. While I admire very talented yoga practitioners (see video for an extreme example), a good session of yoga for me can be much more modest yet still push my physical and mental boundaries, and bring just as much benefit. With this in mind I'd recommend yoga to anyone, no matter what their state of physical health, for they will surely benefit.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The worst night of my life

Let me share the worst night of my life. It was, I think, in February 2009. It played out very similarly to other nights of that month, and the previous, but this particular night I cracked.

My son, you see, was born the previous August. My first child, fruit of my loins, apple of my eye, love of my life. So, indeed, he continues to be. Those first months were hard, but wonderful - adrenalin is a wonderful thing! By December we were struggling. The adrenalin was used up and his sleeping - patchy at best - was deterioriating dramatically.

Around New Year a pattern was established where we put him to bed around 8pm, with us hitting the sack as soon as possible after that - 8:05, 8:10... Sometimes he'd start crying before we got to sleep, other times it would be a couple of hours. In any event we lay down in a state of tension, knowing that the best we could hope for was sleeping until 11pm. For the rest of the night we were woken at about two hourly intervals.

Our initial approach was to work together to get through the night - trying to give each other support. We took it in turns to get up and soothe him. Some nights I'd take him out for walks in the buggy to try and rock him to sleep. But we were in a cold snap and this wasn't so effective (I walked one night from 2am to 3am in below freezing temperatures and returned home with a bright eyed little boy with no thought of sleep).

We realised that we couldn't sustain this so we decided to split the nights in two. I slept with the little fellow on a mattress downstairs in the lounge. We'd stopped feeding him at night, so I didn't have to wake Mum up if he started crying, I could deal with it myself and let her sleep through. Then, the first time he cried after 4am, I'd take him upstairs and she'd take over for the rest of the night.

Some nights were better than others, but none of them were good. One night he refused to sleep in any position other than strapped to me in a sling so I gave up and watched movies perched on the edge of the settee (he wouldn't let me lean back!) until it was time to hand him over.

On the awful night, though, I was too tired to face that and I was determined to get him to sleep. He'd woken me around midnight I think, I guess for the second time that night. I'd soothed him and he'd quitened on my shoulder and started to drift off. Then I gently put him down on the bed.... and he'd started to scream. I repeated this, I think, about seven times over the course of the next hour. Waiting longer and longer before I lay him down, until I was CERTAIN that he would stay asleep... except, of course, that he didn't.

I was starting to feel desperate; I was exhausted and I was acutely aware of a strong feeling of hatred towards this screaming baby. The last time I lay him down, and he started to cry, I had a sudden very clear and distinct vision of picking him up and flinging him with all my might at the wall of the lounge room. Sitting here, writing this, I can still see that image in my eyes. It was a tipping point and it could have gone either way. That vision scared me so much that it jolted me out of my exhaustion and I picked the child up and took him up to his mother. It was two hours early, and I knew that these months had taken a much worse toll on her than on me, but I was scared of what I might do.

I woke her, and told her that I couldn't go on, and she understood immediately. It was OK and I went downstairs and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning though I woke with a new knowledge of myself. I knew that I was capable of terrible things if pushed far enough. True I'd stopped before I did anything awful, but only just, and perhaps only because I had someone to turn to.

* * *

I share this because, after talking to others, I've realised that such an experience is not uncommon for new parents. People don't want to talk about it because it's scary and horrible, but I think it's important to know that others have been through it.

Such an experience also demonstrates how vital is is for us to have support, and to try and arrange our lives so that others can take the strain for us before we reach that point of no return.

Such an experience renews my admiration and respect for single mothers.

Such an experience gives me a great feeling of sympathy, empathy even, for the parents who in their desperation have tipped the other way and done something awful. I think of news footage of mothers being led into a court. Such horror.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Teenage sex

It's a great title, isn't it? Whets the appetite! God knows we see it used that way often enough. Under-age sex is one of those standard topics that newspaper editors recycle whenever public moral outrage seems in danger of dying down and threatening sales (there are a bunch of others: drugs destroying young lives, youths destroying old lives, immigrants destroying British lives,...)

I saw a particularly great example of this a couple of months ago in the Australian newspaper. Their front cover advertised a full-length feature article inside entitled "The Yes Generation". OMIGOD, boys and girls saying "yes" to sex?! Let me buy that paper! Tell me more!

Except that when I turned to the article in question and waded through the preliminary sensationalist gumph, it turned out that the article was covering recent scientific research into the sexual behaviour of teenagers today and - wait for it - it turns out that there was no evidence whatsoever that teenagers were having more sex now than in the past. Headline news! Teenagers are having sex at about the same rate as they've always been!

An interesting subtheme in the issue of teenage sex is its relationship to class. There is a strong emphasis in some newspaper coverage of the issue of the wayward morals of the working classes; or, more precisely, of the unemployed classes. One has images of an army of sixteen year olds pushing prams across council estates and rubbing their hands together gleefully at the prospect of a life on benefits; their lives subsidised by that most feted of tabloid archetypes, the hard-working British taxpayer.

I came across an illuminating take on this subject in the classic novel "Germinal" by Zola. "Germinal" was written in 1885, with the events described therein being set about twenty years previously. Zola's concern is with a group of miners in northern France, and he chronicles their daily struggles in a way that reminded me of Dickens. Like Dickens he has a lot of sympathy for his subjects, although Zola makes less use of caricature than Dickens - his sympathies are held in check by his desire to describe his subjects accurately and without prejudice. (The other similarity is that, like Dickens at his best, "Germinal" is a belting good read.)

With regard to sex, then, Zola writes bluntly. The youth in "Germinal" take their pleasure when they can. They creep out of their over-crowded homes in the evening and copulate in back alleys, and in the waste ground round the mine. They are promiscuous and irresponsible, and entirely free of a good example - their parents' primary concern in all this is the worry that they will end up with pregnant daughters unable to work, and then nine months later another mouth to feed. The people in these villages are viewed by the middle classes as little better than animals for their lack of morals, and their utter surrender to their carnal desires. Yep, the same sneering attitude, just 150 years earlier.

What makes Zola's treatment of the subject interesting, however, is that he understands that this is more than a moral issue. The people in these villages work the mines from the age of six or earlier. They work long long hours in terrible conditions for a pitiful wage that barely covers their food bill. (Zola describes how some of the women are forced to pay their grocery bill by prostituting themselves to the grocer.) When the villagers organise to try and force an improvement to their situation, they are opposed by the mine owners, the police, and the state. In other words they are locked into a life of unrelenting wage slavery, with no prospect of any escape.

The only recourse one has in this situation is to take one's pleasure where you can find it. So the men spend too much of their money in getting drunk and buying favours of prostitutes, the teenagers take their pleasure with each other (and the women and children have very little pleasure of any kind). It makes a lot of sense; Bernard Shaw was another who saw the logic in this outlook - consider this speech from "Pygmalion":
What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: 'You're undeserving; so you can't have it.' But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving...
It is interesting to observe that the insight of Zola and Shaw still holds true today. Despite what the tabloids might say, there is clearly NOT an epidemic of teenage sex in modern society; as the research I mentioned above suggests, teenagers are having sex about as often as their parents did when they were young. On the other hand, if society is worried about teenagers having sex, then it would be as well to recognise that the primary motivation is, more often than not, a lack of alternatives. People living on estates in Britain might be materially better off than miners in 19th century France but still, if you've got no money in today's society, then you are nobody. You have nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Better get your fun for free (e.g. via sex) or cheaply (via booze) or you'll have no fun at all.

The media's obsession with an absence of morals in the young and the poor is a big old red herring. The real issue is the lack of opportunity for whole sections of British society, and the complete lack of interest that recent governments have had in changing this state of affairs. Far easier to point the finger of judgement at today's teenagers, than to put energy into providing them with real opportunities for self-improvement.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Heathrow immigration horror

Today I saw an awful thing. I was making my way through the passport control at Heathrow airport in the mental haze which normally engulfs me in this sort of setting: my brain goes into "hibernate mode", and I enter a sort of protective fog that muffles the relentless sensual stimulation that seems to be mandatory in the modern airport.

So I did not immediately clock the little scene that was playing out next to my queue. Indeed I was almost under the nose of the barrel-chested customs man, before I realised what he was up to. He was perched on the side of a table, arms crossed high up that expansive chest, belt shining, big bunch of keys hanging off the side (probably a squawking radio in there somewhere); in short, successfully giving that impression of being slightly oversized that comes so naturally to officers of the law, and their ilk.

He was gazing down at an unfortunate couple who'd obviously been dragged out of my queue for some irregularity. The first words I heard him say were "all I'm asking is for you to be honest with me..." The sort of on-the-face-of-it decent, reasonable request that is another speciality of officers of the law. Reasonable, that is, until you think what their request implies. What will happen if you're honest with this man? What will he do with your truth? If you've got nothing to hide, then you've got nothing to fear, right? So the (faulty) logic goes.

"I just want to know if you've been earning any money.... So you've been earning £25 a day, for the last nine years.... In a kitchen..." His volume as oversized as his chest, his voice rang out as my queue passed him by; I couldn't hear the responses of the couple - they were just ordinary-sized.

I didn't want to make them feel objects on display but, still, I turned as I passed to properly look at the couple. And as I saw them clearly for the first time - focussing on them not on the immigration officer - I suddenly felt sick. They were of South-East-Asian appearance, a man and a woman, in their forties I would guess. But it was the look on their faces that caught me; they were caught, and I could see the fear in the tight muscles of their face and the aliveness in their eyes, as they sought desperately for some escape.

I didn't hear them make a sound; I barely saw them make a movement. They weren't causing a fuss; I don't know what their story is. I imagine that they've spent nine years in this country making a very marginal living and now, finally, for whatever reason, they want to go home. But in trying to board that plane, they've crept out of the shadows and into the full glare of our immigration system, and now what they want and what they were planning is a matter of no consequence. Because someone noticed that they have an out-of-date stamp on their passport, now other people will decide what will happen to them. Other people who, god damn it, should not have the right.

I wanted to shake my head at what was happening, but I didn't want the couple to see and think I disapproved of THEM. I didn't want them to feel like the inhabitants of this island are as heartless and inhuman as the laws that govern them. So I did nothing and went on my way, sick and unseeing. I write this just a few hours later, and God knows where that man and woman are now. I hope with all my heart that they are on their way to their desired destination; I fear though that they are in a cell somewhere or in an interview room with a barrel-chested immigration man who just wants them to be honest...
* * *
I got to the front of the queue, was processed, and found acceptable. My reward: entry into the duty-free/ restaurant area that precedes the boarding gates. Everywhere there were people pulling their little suitcases on floors of shiny white tiles, browsing aisles full of single malt whiskey, or celebrity magazines, or high-quality leatherware. There was an oyster bar, and a steak house, one wall was covered with the picture of a naked lady (some actor; she looked familiar) sitting on a couch with her legs crossed and wearing huge green jewels.

I ate a sad dinner in a sushi bar where plates come round on little tracks, and the walls are covered with different ways of writing the characters "YO!". I walked past a Bulgari shop where I could buy a £7000 watch, or a £10 000 necklace with BULGARI written in big letters across the front of it. Shiny, shiny, shiny, people, people, people.

I remembered a documentary I watched a couple of nights ago about the swingers club Plato's Retreat. People who'd visited Plato's in its heyday were interviewed, and they told stories of wild nights eating, drinking, dancing and fucking at Plato's. A couple of people talked about "the mat room" - a big room with no furniture but an almighty great mat on which an orgy took place every night: dozens of bodies writhing around taking their pleasure any way they could get it. One woman, a regular at Plato's, said she found the mat room "a bit full on"; she preferred to take her men one at a time....

If Plato's Retreat is a metaphor for our big shiny consumer society, then that shopping area in Heathrow felt like the mat room. Take your pleasure any way you can get it. But God help you if you don't pass the entry test...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Catholic Workers and AWE

Last week-end I pootled up to Oxford for a Faith and Resistance Retreat organised by the good folk from the Catholic Worker.

Perhaps an unusual way to pass the week-end given that I aint Catholic, and I dislike working :-) Moreover, although I was brought up a believer, I have lapsed spectacularly and have no intention of unlapsing...

The good thing about the Catholic Workers is that they don't give a monkeys about any of this. They'll work with anyone, whether they have a God or not. In fact they're possibly better understood as a rather unusual kind of anarchist group - the kind that goes in for spirituality as well... George Woodcock in his classic book "Anarchism" discusses the Catholic Worker in terms of Tolstoy's anarchist principles:
Perhaps the most impressive example of Tolstoyan influence in the contemporary Western world has been ... the Roman Catholic group associated in the United States with the Catholic Worker...
In recent times, in the UK and elsewhere, the Catholic Workers have been among the most committed and consistent of anti-war and anti-military groups. Members of the Catholic Worker have done hard time in the UK for opposing the Iraq war, and the war machine associated with it.

So this was a retreat with a difference. We spent the Sunday enjoying the sunshine and discussing the impact of the first Plowshares trial 30 years ago. Three of those present at the retreat had participated in Plowshares actions, all of them serving many months in jail in the US, Ireland, and the UK.

On Monday we adjourned to Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). Three of those present broke into the base to express their opposition. Members from the Trident Ploughshares group were also present blockading the base. While this went on the rest of us (having arrived late after a nightmare traffic jam) vigilled at the gates of AWE.

AWE is a huge establishment, and it is currently receiving extensive investment. Capital works at AWE are currently in the region of £1 billion per year - a new laser system is being built, as well as a hydro-testing plant; the figure of £1 billion p.a. does not take into account investment associated with the renewal of the Trident weapons system which will cost tens of billions; no belt-tightening here.

By vigilling at the gate of AWE we sought to remind ourselves, and those passing by, of the real purpose of AWE. It exists to build weapons of unimaginable destruction; weapons that, if used, must inevitably result in death and misery for tens of thousands of human beings. I held my son in my arms and felt sick at this monster that we have built, and which he and others will have to face in years to come.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Decommissioners are free

This is a long-overdue update on my last posting regarding the Decommissioners. They were found not-guilty, and all are now free!

Full details can be found at their website, linked above. I'll shortly be putting up another post detailing more recent actions, in which I played a part. Resistance to the war-machine continues...