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2016 – a year in review

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This review of my year is somewhat coarse and uncouth. I apologise if any of the following language causes offence. I’ve tried to be creative with it rather than write what I really think! It’s just, well, it’s just been one of those years, hasn’t it?

I usually try to find a suitable header image for these reviews. The best idea I came up with was an image of 2016 being flushed down a toilet, just as a big fat hairy arse was pooping 2017 into it. It sort of sums up my feelings. Yes, this year has been a bit of stinker to say the least. 2017, though, is set to be a real honker. An “I’d leave that about 20 minutes before you go in” sort of year. That’s why I’ve put a picture of Billy-puss there instead.

So, 2016. What have you got to say for yourself?

The World

It’s very easy to be a bit of a grump about the state of things, I think. I keep looking for something positive. I’m sure there are one or two diamond chips lurking in the overall shower of shit that was 2016, but I’m buggered if I can spot them.

The new year set the trend with the somewhat unexpected death of David Bowie in January. It seemed to go downhill from there, frankly. When you come to look at it calmly, though, the quantity of celebrity deaths in 2016 isn’t really all that much different to previous years. It just seems worse, I think, because there’s a cohort of actors, musicians and so on, that has reached that kind of age where they will tend to drop of the perch. It becomes more acute when you’ve lived with these people as part of your life, even if only vicariously or tangentially. Their work, of course, lives on.

The Middle East remains an utter mess. As I type this, a final act in Syria is potentially beginning, but I don’t wish to comment in depth. Bombings and shootings in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and whatever you do don’t mention Yemen… No one source of “news” can give a clear picture of the maelstrom, and picking shreds of truth from the endless frothing onslaught is all but impossible. At every turn, claim and counterclaim, and everyone is currently blaming the Russians. Odd, that, since last year it was the Chinese.

We turn to the United States of America… Actually, no, let’s not. They’ve made their bed. We’d have suffered whichever side had claimed the presidency, and we’ve got enough of a pickle of our own to sort out.

The environment seems to be collapsing faster than Sterling against the US dollar. Despite the evidence before their very eyes, unbelievers still insist there is no such thing as anthropogenic global warming. I’ve given up. We might just as well give up and let it all crash and burn. Perhaps then they’ll listen, when it’s all too late to do anything. Actually, I think we passed that point about twenty years back, just when we were beginning to realise something was badly amiss. It’s your grandchildren I feel sorry for. I don’t have any kids, so I don’t waste any time worrying about their non-existent futures.

Sheesh! Is there a sane country left on this planet‽ Would you be surprised if I told you I was at the point of applying to emigrate to Iceland? Seriously. The only problem is I wouldn’t have a job there, Best Beloved wouldn’t like the climate, and working as a modelmaker in an overseas territory when my client base is mostly here in the UK would be a bit silly. Oh well, another door slams, as they say. Chalk up another opportunity I failed to grab as it sailed by. The story of my life.

Blighty

Sodding Brexit. Seriously, sod it and all who sail in her. What a fiasco. Even if we end up not leaving the EU—and some polls seem to indicate a sufficient number of leave voters have since changed their minds, such that it could swing that way—something deeply fundamental at the core of the United Kingdom has been utterly broken. Brexit, apparently, means Brexit, whatever the hell that word salad is supposed to mean. Possibly with red, white and blue, but it means Brexit. That’s the level of foresight and planning our inglorious leaders have on the matter. I find it hard to look at anyone these days and trust them with anything. What must it be like for other EU nationals living here, let alone people with deeper skin tones? You know who I blame for it?

The sodding Tories, and especially that moon-faced arse-gibbon David Cameron. Frightened by the UKIP tendency, he called the referendum, failed to make it binding as he fully expected the Remain campaign would win it with ease, then flounced off to his millions when it all went tits up. Arrogant shit, leaving the rest of us in the same. If we could find him, he should be dragged back and his nose rubbed in the mess he’s made!

After a couple of nights of the long knives, Theresa May reached the top of the Conservative Party greasy pole. What’s rather worrying is she’s shown little aptitude for the job, which isn’t altogether surprising as she wasn’t exactly employee of the month in her previous one. I don’t suppose it’ll be long before we get to choose more self-aggrandising wastes of oxygen and space to occupy the crumbling ruin of the Palace of Westminster. The Labour Party weren’t any better, either. Bunch of tossers. A leader is elected with a massive popular mandate, but the MPs don’t like him so they try to run another leadership campaign to oust him. The original leader is returned with an even larger mandate. What the actual blue-faced f@c# did they expect would happen‽ Honestly, what a bunch of moronic no-hopers. Meanwhile, the Tories run rampant, tearing the country to shreds with no real opposition. You couldn’t make this up.

Having decided by the slimmest of margins, of those that actually bothered to vote in the damned EU referendum that is, that the “will of the people” was we should leave the European Union, Mrs May placed Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis in charge. The Three Stooges, only with less intelligence and foresight. God help us all. Oh, I forgot, there is no god. Sorry. Looks like we are on our own.

That other bad smell, Nigel Farage (that’s pronounced as “farridge” round here), simply won’t go away. Having resigned from the Kippers’ leadership, he found himself back in it again almost immediately when the woman elected to run things found white middle-aged blokes don’t like women telling them what to do. Shades of General Election 2015. Now he’s found a properly loony white middle-aged bloke to run things, Farage is off again. Mr Froggy-Would-A-Wooing-Go has recently been crawling up the tailpipe of the Orange One in Trumpland. I wish he’d crawl up there and stay, and good riddance. I wish to no longer see his leering visage on my television screen, thank you.

What a nasty, vicious, small-minded place this once great country has become. Perhaps it’s always been that way, but the pretty wrapping paper covered it up. Who knows. Whatever, it’s a darker place now than it was this time last year, and it was no Blackpool illuminations back then either.

We had some pretty good weather during the summer, so that was nice. The autumn was pretty spectacular, too. I failed to get out my camera gear, though. Another positive note was the release of a new ELO album. The summer was only marred by the old biddie in Buck House turning 90. Woo-bloody-hoo! Oh, and the Rio Olympics. To be fair, Team GB did quite well. Good luck to ’em.

Domestic

At home it’s been a year of ups and downs. On my work front, it’s like it’s never ending. I closed my order book for 2017, and will tentatively take on new commissions for 2018 some time during next year. It’s feels good to be in demand, but my pace of work is painfully slow at times. Still, the bank balance is well into the black, which is a nice place to be.

We said goodbye to our old Sophie-puss in May. Her health had been on a downturn for a while, but bearing in mind she was close to 20 years old, she didn’t do too badly. We went off to be chosen again as soon as we could, and Billy-puss has made himself properly at home now. It’s almost like he was meant to be here.

Best Beloved’s health has been up, down, up, and sideways. He’s not too bad, overall, considering what’s wrong with him. As I type this review, we’re both in the last stages of recovering from a really nasty bout of some cold virus or other. I have never felt so ill. It killed appetites, meaning we’ve been missing out on meals, leading to overall weakness. Today is the first day we’ve felt almost human. I don’t want another dose of that, thank you very much indeed.

In other news, we had a new back door and window fitted. We’d been planning to do that for about a decade. We then lashed out on a new air source heat pump heating system. Theoretically, it will save us money on our utility bills. While it’s not perfect, and doesn’t really heat the whole house floor area as one would expect, it’s doing okay and we look to be on track to make some savings as predicted. Our gas consumption is now down to a tiny amount, as we still need to make hot water for washing and so on, but we’re looking at alternatives to that. Our energy supplier recently announced that they sourced all their electricity from renewable and low carbon sources, which is nice, and our monthly payments have been reduced based on our usage. I call that winning.

So we end the year on a generally positive personal note. I know there is still a lot of good out there, and there’s still a lot of beauty in the world, but you have to admit it’s becoming pretty hard to put on a happy face for any length of time. Let me end my drivel by wishing you and your families the very best compliments of the season, and let us hope that 2017 turns out to be not as bad as it looks like it might be. See you in the new year!

Have we peaked?

This isn’t a terribly well organised or thought through post. I just wanted to get the idea out there, so please forgive the somewhat random nature of what follows.

I have come to the conclusion that our civilisation has peaked.

What do I mean by this? Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the progress of Western civilisation has been steady. Yes, it took bloodshed to give us the rights we hold dear, but conflict has also driven progress, particularly in the technological sphere.

A couple of centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution brought mass production of goods, massive improvements in transport and cities that began to grow exponentially. We began to explore our world, to learn about its limits, and—sadly—to exploit much of it. Natural philosophers discovered gravity, how light works, and made the first stumbling steps into understanding the very building blocks of our universe. We looked up and out, beyond our own planet and dreamed of distant places.

In the 20th century, two global conflicts drove technology. We could fly in heavier-than-air-machines, we could dive below the surface of our oceans. We could destroy cities instantly. After 1945, things began to change socially. Here in the UK we created a welfare state, so no-one would need for a home or food if they should find themselves out of work. A national health service, free at the point of delivery and paid for through taxation, meant illnesses and diseases of poverty were virtually eliminated. Life was still hard, but it was getting easier.

We lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, it is true. A stalemate between two opposing forces, which came almost to blows on many occasions, yet which didn’t prevent society making progress. Civil rights, gender equality, all started in the years following the end of the Second World War. We put men on the Moon!

Yet, as I sit here, tapping away at this keyboard into the ether of another of mankind’s inventions, I can’t help feeling we aren’t making progress any more. Despite the evidence of science, religion is still here. Superstition still has a hold over many millions of our species. Diseases once thought extinct are making a comeback. A world population that’s grown by over four thousand millions since I was born half a century ago is beginning to take its toll on ecology and diversity of our home planet. We were warned about the harm we were doing to our planet, and now it’s virtually too late to stop its effects.

That was a bit depressing. Sorry about that.

I now think, despite iPhones and Internet and jet aircraft and microwaves and organ transplants and space stations, our society has peaked. I think the pinnacle was reached in July 1969, when three men left their home planet, landed on and explored another world, and came safely home to Earth. That, my friends, was the apogee of Western civilisation and Western science. Ever since, for better or worse, we have been in steady decline.

I don’t have an answer, even if I thought there was one. Was there even a question? As I said, this thesis hasn’t really been thought through.

Jesus may be with Occupy London, but St Paul would have sided with health and safety | Marina Hyde | Comment is free | The Guardian

So, after a week in which the instinctively malign bumblings of British authority yet again had the flavour of a debased Ealing comedy, Rev Fraser’s principled departure brought a sense of clarity. Friday’s summoning of the lawyers by St Paul’s merely underscored it. We now know that Giles’s erstwhile colleagues do not want those who perceive themselves the slaves of capitalism dwelling where it liketh them in the church’s gate. They would liketh the protesters to “move on”, in fact – even though it seems likely to lead to ugly scenes and possibly violence – and allow them to resume the softly-softly behind-the-scenes work in fighting injustice and selling £180 cufflinks which has done such a bang-up job of making the victims of their City neighbours feel empowered.

The joys of an established church, eh?

Evergreens at Christmas

Before shiny tinsel and lights, it was the tradition to decorate the home for Christmas using evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. All three have, therefore, long been linked with the winter festivals, and have accrued their fair share of superstitions and myths. Decorating rooms with branches of evergreens in winter was a Roman tradition, and decorating with greenery is also an ancient Jewish tradition. It should come as no surprise, then, that Christians incorporated such traditions, though this is probably more because the Pagan traditions proved to hard to stamp out!

Apart from their attractive appearance, Christmas decorations of holly are also guardians against evil, although it is considered bad luck to keep them up after Twelfth Night — January 6, which coincides with the Old Christmas Day. Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions still hold to this calendar for their Christmas season, which is why some folk are getting all Christmassy just as the rest of us are packing away the tired decorations for another year.

There are something like 600 species of holly around the world. Holly supposedly derives its name from the word “holy”, though more accurately it seems the word comes to English from Germanic roots. Tradition says holly’s evergreen leaves represent eternal life, its thorns and red berries are symbolic of the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion. Probably from Pagan times, holly’s prickles make it an ideal deterrent against all evil spirits, which is the reason for making holly wreath displays for front doors, and decorating the rooms of our homes with it to ensure a happy and misfortune-free Christmas. Superstition does decree, however, that you must pick the holly before Christmas Eve, or be open to the evil intentions of any enemy you may have in either the real or the spirit world.

Because of its association with the Roman god Bacchusivy used to be hung outside inns and was naturally considered a good luck plant. If it grows on the walls of a house it is said to protect those inside from misfortune and the ministrations of evil spirits, but should the plant die then those inside are in for misfortune, probably of the financial kind. Again, the name comes to us from an old Germanic form. The heart-shaped leaves are said to symbolise the coming to earth of Jesus.

Mistletoe featured prominently in Greek mythology, which also appears to have influenced the Scandinavian myths about the plant. It all begins to get a bit complicated from there, what with Loki,Baldr and HöðrFrigg and an arrow made of mistletoe. If such things take your interest, type mistletoe into Wikipedia! Surprisingly, although mistletoe is commonly known as a Christmas decoration, it wasn’t well known until a couple of centuries ago.

According to tradition, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between harvesting and removal as the last greens at Candlemas – which is not on Twelfth Night as you might think. You might also note that while it is perfectly permissible to cut down a few branches of mistletoe, never take the whole tree, for this will result in the dire bad luck. It may also remain hanging through the year, as a ward to protect the house against fire or being struck by lightning, until replaced on the following Christmas Eve.

Many of us may know the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe. This seems to be a Scandinavian custom, where any two people who meet under a hanging mistletoe are obliged to kiss.

Finally, a warning about a piece of mistletoe which has been much kissed under — unless it is burned on Twelfth Night, says a superstition found in many European countries, all those who kissed beneath it will be quarrelling before the year is out.

The next instalment in this short seasonal series ought to be about Father Christmas himself.

 Related posts: Merry Christmas!

 

Merry Christmas!

Ah, Christmas. The season of gluttony and debt. Once a religious festival, now just a glorification of consumerism.

That’s been my jaundiced opinion of the festive season for some years now. I outgrew the schmaltz and fake snow, the forced happiness and tawdry tinsel some time ago, but then I don’t have children. Christmas is really a time for the little ones, before the magic gets tarnished by the reality.

Disliking the overly commercialised aspects of Christmas doesn’t stop me being fascinated by it. Where do all those “traditional” elements spring from? Why are some pre-Christian traditions still stubbornly followed, some 200 centuries after the events supposedly commemorated this time of the year? Then again, there are some superstitions and traditions that have fallen by the wayside. There’s more to Christmas than the goose getting fat and plum pudding.

The Christmas festival of today is a confection chiefly cooked up by the Victorians, with a fair measure of early 20th century Americana thrown in. However, the roots of what is essentially a midwinter festival go back an awful lot further than that.

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In the beginning

On the shortest day of the year, a little after sunrise, a sunbeam begins its journey along the stone passageway of probably the most impressive prehistoric structure in Europe. Even though the passage of Newgrange, a spectacular monument that sits on a ridge overlooking the River Boyne, north of Dublin, is slightly twisted, eventually the sun reaches about 25m to the far end. The beam touches the front edge of a stone basin, which is set below intricate carvings of spirals and solar discs. The soft light illuminates the basin, thought to be the inner sanctum of the tomb, where the cremated remains of ancestors may have been placed, for about a quarter of an hour. Then the sunlight retreats and darkness returns. This event is repeated for a week or so either side of the winter solstice, then leaving the stone basin in the chamber in darkness for the rest of the year.

Newgrange is about 5000 years old, older than Stonehenge by some centuries. I think we can safely assume the careful observation that lets the winter solstice sunlight touch the resting place of the ancestors predates the monument’s construction by some time. Indeed, it is now thought that Stonehenge also has stones set specifically to observe the winter solstice sunset, as well as the more obvious and famous midsummer sunrise. Observing, following, venerating the change of the seasons is deeply rooted in humankind.

Particular emphasis seems to have been given to those seasonal changes when the nights began to get shorter, and the weather would get better again. The symbolism of death and rebirth was not wasted on the ancients. When you could never be certain you or your family would make it through the winter alive, marking important points in the calendar, and making offerings to ancestors or gods to help you through the remaining dark days to spring, could be crucial.

Marking the midwinter point, therefore, is deeply ingrained in our civilisation. So deep that many of the customs and traditions have managed to survive a millennium and more of Christianity. It also seems the original Christian observances were eventually shifted to closer match the deeply ingrained winter festivals in date. December 25 as a day of celebration can apparently be traced back to the Romans, for example. It is said December 25 was the culmination of either the feast of Saturnalia or possibly Dies Natalis Solus Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun). Saturnalia, it seems, is responsible for the festive merrymaking and giving of gifts, and the Roman new year has left us with decorations and acts of charity.

Whose birthday is it?

Christ’s birth date is not given in the New Testament. According to some scholars, Jesus was conceived around the time of the spring equinox, which popularised the date for his birth as December 25 in the AD 220s. Despite this, celebrating birthdays, even of gods, was rather frowned upon, so it seems Christmas was not a feast at this time.

Early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany, which falls on January 6 in the Gregorian calendar. This really emphasised the baptism of Christ. It wasn’t until the revival of Catholicism towards the end of the 4th century that Christmas itself began to be promoted. Even so, Epiphany continued to be the more important celebration.

Orthodox Christians still use the old Julian calendar to place Christmas. This is why they appear to be kicking off their Christmas Day celebrations on January 6, the day when we in the west are pulling all the decorations down and looking forward to the rest of January in gloom.

Christmas Day itself became more prominent after various monarchs decided to hold their coronations on December 25, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror being just two.

It took until the Middle Ages for Christmas to really take flight. It’s around the 12th century the idea of Advent occurs, which eventually gave us the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 to January 5. Advent marks the first day of the liturgical year, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day, which is why your Advent calendar tends to cover the whole of December, although in 2010 Advent started on November 27…

Eventually, all the feasting and merrymaking became so lavish and elaborate that puritan Protestants began to strongly condemn the celebration as a Catholic invention. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, the new Puritan rulers, seeking to remove the remaining Pagan elements of Christmas, banned the celebration in 1647, despite protests and folk openly continuing to celebrate.

The ban was ended in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy. However, by 1820 some writers worried that Christmas was dying out. Authors began to look back to earlier times, such as the Tudors, when the season was full of celebration. Efforts were made to revive the traditions of Christmas, helped no end by Charles Dickens publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843. If our modern Christmas has a beginning, the tale of Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas must surely be one of the prime candidates.

So much to tell

Rather than get side-tracked by all the religious kerfuffle surrounding Christmas, let’s take a quick look at the other traditions that mark Christmas in the modern world. I will cover some in more detail in future posts.

From pre-Christian times, we get the use of evergreen plants to decorate our homes. Holly, ivy and mistletoe all had mystical significance, as I mentioned earlier. Christianity has added further layers to decorating homes with evergreen plants, but that can wait for another time.

While decorating trees is a long-established tradition in parts of northern Europe, it only really became fashionable in Britain after it was introduced to royal family celebrations by Prince Albert in the 1830s. Now, it’s big business, as are Christmas cards, another Victorian innovation made possible by a reliable and inexpensive postal service. The tradition of pulling crackers is another Victorian invention.

The Yule log is a northern European tradition, albeit a remnant of the original Pagan celebration. The fire used to burn the log is always started from a remnant of the log that burned during the previous year’s festivities, and the log should burn for twelve days. Nowadays, a Yule log is frequently a cake or pastry of some kind.

Let’s not, of course, forget Father Christmas, Santa Klaus, or St Nicholas. St Nick is the patron saint of Christmas Day, and had a reputation for the giving of secret gifts. Santa comes to Britain via the Dutch Sinterklaas, a soupçon of Nordic pantheon, and a hefty dose of 19th century Americana. Santa, his history and evolution, is worthy of an entire essay of his own!

The modern Christmas is a complex beast. It mixes ancient traditions with modern habits. It’s evolved from a celebration of the turning of the year into a something of a commercialised monster: it’s been calculated that about a quarter of all personal spending over a year happens around Christmas. I am planning a short series of articles about specific features of the season, so watch this space.

Whatever you think of it, and whoever you plan to spend it with, have a very merry Christmas!

 

This article was first published at x404.co.uk.

 

BBC News – Bishop to bless Lincolnshire’s gritters

The Bishop of Lincoln will bless Lincolnshire’s gritters in the hope of cutting the number of winter crashes.

The Right Reverend Dr John Saxbee, who retires in January, has blessed the county’s fleet each year since 2003.

He said past ceremonies had been followed by a reduction in road deaths, which was “perhaps not a coincidence”.

Oh good grief.