Responding to the voices

In my previous blog (see article 146: Hearing the Voices of February 6, 2020) I posed the following question: To what extent should the British State be involved with the religious, cultural and family background of the children and young people for whom it has the responsibility to educate? This question was linked with the related issue of the extent to which parents of children coming to the United Kingdom should be expected to comply with the educational aims and objectives of the British educational system?
The article then proceeded to ask a further question, that is, in a multi-cultural society, should all expressions of religious faith and cultural practices be treated with equal value? It was then stated that these questions, as well as other related issues, are explicitly referred to in the recently published Ofsted Report 2018/19 (January 2020).
In an interview which followed the release of the Ofsted Report 2018/19, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, commented that a weakness in the children’s services can be seen in the fact that in confronting several issues the relevant action “meant crossing lines of race, culture and religion, with all their inherent sensitivities.” Ms Spielman was tacitly acknowledging that the education of many children – especially those in the “most vulnerable situations” – was being hindered by the religious beliefs and practices, the faith culture, of their family background.
Furthermore, the necessity to address this cultural situation was something of which educational authorities, indeed political responsibility, was wary of confronting. Some subjects that seem to be “inherently taboo” would include the following:
• Schools illegally segregating pupils and giving girls a much worse deal than boys
• Books in schools that promote corporal punishment
• Materials that say that a wife cannot deny their husband
• Teaching materials are censored to airbrush women out of history
The findings related to these issues have been reported, but public discussion of them has failed to materialize. The relevant voices have not been heard loud enough or with sufficient clarity and “too few people are willing to tread in these sensitive areas, so that real concerns drop out of sight almost at once.” Many in contemporary multi-cultural British society find it difficult to acknowledge that “the different rights we value are not always easy to reconcile with each other.”
As the Ofsted Report 2018/19 acknowledges, such seemingly irreconcilable rights would include the following:
• The interaction of religious freedom with the law of the land
• Rights for groups versus rights for individuals, especially girls
• The extent of parents’ rights over children
• The differing perceptions in different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship.
To paraphrase an important section of the report: in consequence of the sensitive nature of issues (such as those above), and the sometime volatile reaction to any discussion of them, it is often the case that there is no swift condemnation from government and remarkably little from national and local political leaders. Powerful voices are often muted. Headteachers are isolated. Overall, leadership is lacking.
It is implicit in the Ofsted Report 2018/19 that there are tensions in children’s education and care between the aims and objectives of a national curriculum and the religious and cultural background of the students the curriculum seeks to serve. The tensions are evident; the solutions are more of a problem.
One solution to this situation is provided by the National Secular Society (NSS). Some background information will be helpful.
In 1944 the British Government brought in the Education Act 1944. This act meant that, for the first time, both primary and secondary education would be provided to all free of charge in England and Wales. However, as the NSS has commented, the Act “also brought hundreds of faith schools into the state sector, introduced daily worship in all schools and created the system of voluntary controlled, voluntary aided and community schools we still have today.” The intention of religious education within the Education Act 1944 was to simply inform, not preach or proselytize. The reality, however, has been otherwise.
It has been estimated that faith schools account for around a third of publicly funded schools in England and Wales, while many Scottish and Northern Irish schools are divided along sectarian lines. The research of the NSS reveals that “faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion, foster segregation of children on social, ethnic and religious lines, and undermine choice and equality. They also enable religious groups to use public money to evangelize children.”
So, the NSS considers that “the scourge of faith schools, and the deference to religious interests within the education system”, are largely the legacy of the Education Act 1944.
In consequence of the above, in April 2018 the NSS launched its No More Faith Schools campaign. This is a national campaign dedicated to bringing an end to state funded faith schools, believing that this can happen when like-minded persons, including those working in local and national governmental and educational circles, work together to this end.
The NSS believes that the No More Faith Schools campaign “is a platform for everyone who wants to see an inclusive education system, free from religious control.” It seeks to bring together all those who think that “children from all faith and belief backgrounds should be educated together and allowed to develop their own beliefs independently.”
So too, the NSS is of view that we can build “an inclusive education system today, to ensure an inclusive society tomorrow”. This education system will be one that is free from religious proselytization and discrimination. Where religion is taught in such a system it will be from a secular approach, for example, as an aspect of a subject syllabus in what the philosopher and educator A.C. Grayling has called the “history of ideas”, or from a philosophy and ethics approach and, therefore, void of any confessional or evangelical basis.
In ways such as these the aforementioned irreconcilable religious beliefs, parental rights and cultural practices, a number of which would come into conflict with British law, as well as group rights versus individual rights and different perceptions within different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship, would be provided with scaffolding for a more cohesive approach to children’s educational services.
The NSS is not alone in hoping that a future Ofsted Report will reflect such a framework.


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Hearing the voices

To what extent should the British State be involved with the religious, cultural and family background of the children and young people for which it has the responsibility to educate? To what extent should parents of children coming to the United Kingdom be expected to comply with the educational aims and objectives of the British educational system? In a multi-cultural society, should all expressions of religious faith and cultural practices be treated with equal value? These and other related questions are implicit in the recently published Ofsted Report 2018/19.
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) is a non-ministerial department of the UK government, reporting to Parliament. Founded in 1992, with a jurisdiction covering England and its headquarters located in London, Ofsted is responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions, including state schools and some independent schools. It has staffing and a budget to match its range of responsibilities.
The current Chief Inspector of Ofsted is Amanda Spielman and, on the 21st. of January 2020, she gave a speech which launched Ofsted’s Annual Report for 2018/19. In this report, Amanda Spielman discussed the quality of education, training and care services in England. Following the publication of the report, Ms Spielman was duly interviewed by the television presenter Sophie Ridge on the latter’s Sunday morning current affairs programme on Sky News.
During this interview Amanda Spielman focused on the section of the latest Ofsted report which dealt with “Children’s Social Care”. The Ofsted report considered that “making good decisions for children lies at the heart of our approach to social care”, and Amanda Spielman emphasized that, where these “most vulnerable children” are concerned, the Ofsted inspectorate always wants to see that “the right decisions are taken by those with the power and responsibility to help them”.
In acknowledging that there are still some weaknesses in the system of Ofsted’s approach to social care, the 2018/19 Ofsted Report stated that, despite “a context of increasing demand, children’s services are still chronically under-resourced” However, the report also states that “Better ways of working would also help improve the overall picture for children” and would help to strengthen some of the weaknesses in the system.
The report highlights five themes that needed a “joined-up approach” in order to combat common areas of weakness in children’s services. These themes were;
• Child sexual exploitation
• Domestic abuse
• Neglect of older children
• Child criminal exploitation and – most recently –
• Sexual abuse in the family.
With the above in mind, in her interview with Sophie Ridge, the Ofsted Chief Inspector commented that a weakness in the children’s services can be seen, in the words of the Ofsted Annual Report for 2018/19, in the “scandalous failure to tackle sexual exploitation of children because to do so meant crossing lines of race, culture and religion, with all their inherent sensitivities.”
In both the 2018/19 Ofsted Report and her Ridge interview, Amanda Spielman was tacitly acknowledging that the education of many children – especially those in the “most vulnerable situations” – was being hindered by the religious beliefs and practices, the faith culture, of their family background. Furthermore, the necessity to address this cultural situation was something of which educational authorities, indeed political responsibility, was wary of confronting.
However, Amanda Spielman insists that Ofsted, “as well as speaking truth to power, won’t duck controversy or difficult topics.” So too, recognizing that “bad things can happen”, nevertheless, “everyone with a responsibility for children must speak openly and honestly about these.” Some subjects that are “inherently taboo” would include the following:
• Schools illegally segregating pupils and giving girls a much worse deal than boys
• Books in schools that promote corporal punishment
• Materials that say that a wife cannot deny their husband
• Teaching materials are censored to airbrush women out of history, even including Queen Elizabeth 1st.
It is implicit in both the Ofsted Report 2018/19 and Amanda Spielman’s interview with Sophie Ridge that, repeatedly, reported findings that should have led to proper public discussion of some very difficult issues, have failed to do so. But the voices are not being heard with the required level of clarity and too few people “are willing to tread in these sensitive areas and that real concerns drop out of sight almost at once.”
Moreover, it can be realized that many people find it difficult to acknowledge that, in contemporary British society, “the different rights we value are not always easy to reconcile with each other.” Some of the areas where tensions have been evident would include the following:
• The interaction of religious freedom with the law of the land
• Rights for groups versus rights for individuals, especially girls
• The extent of parents’ rights over children
• The differing perceptions in different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship.
Yet, in the view of the Chief Inspector and the Ofsted Report 2018/19, schools are often where these tensions play out. Amanda Spielman further mentions that, during the period of the current report, “a small number of state schools were picketed and bullied by protestors. Some were undoubtedly parents, but many others were seasoned agitators, wanting to escalate problems.”
In attributing causation for this action, the report is very careful in stating that the subject of the demonstrator’s anger was relationships education in primary school – which generally amounts “to telling children that there are different types of families, some with a mum and a dad, some with just one parent, some with only grandparents, and some with two mums or two dads.”
Out of this simple concept, protestors, on this occasion belonging to the Islamic faith constructed “a depressing tissue of exaggeration, outrage and, sometimes, lies. Children were not actually being taught about the mechanics of gay sex; and they were not being turned towards homosexuality, nor away from their families and their faith.”
To paraphrase an important section of the report: in consequence of the sensitive nature of issues (such as those above), and the sometime volatile reaction to any discussion of them, it is often the case that there is no swift condemnation from government and remarkably little from national and local political leaders. Powerful voices are often muted. Headteachers are isolated. Overall, leadership is lacking.
Though not explicitly stated, the Ofsted Report 2018/19 clearly indicates the tensions in children’s education and care between the aims and objectives of a national curriculum and the religious and cultural background of the students the curriculum seeks to serve. The tensions are evident; the solutions are more of a problem.
In my next blog I will seek to present one such solution.


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The demands of democracy

After the actual word “Brexit” it was the most used word in the whole of the Brexit debate. I speak, of course, of the word “Democracy”.
The word “democracy” and the practice of government which it typifies, has a long and chequered career, going back to the ancient Greek state of Athens. It refers to a form of government in which the people of the state have the authority and opportunity to choose their governing legislation and those who legislate. Who people are and how authority is shared are core issues for democratic development.
This word, or one of its derivatives, was primarily used by the proponents of Brexit to emphasis their case for withdrawing from the European Union. The argument of the so-called “Brexiteers” referred to the fact that, at the 2016 EU Referendum, the electorate voted, albeit by a small % margin, to withdraw from the EU.
On 23 June 2016, the recorded result was that the UK voted to leave the European Union by 51.89% for Leave to 48.11% for Remain, a margin of 3.78%. This corresponded to 17,410,742 votes to leave and 16,141,241 to remain, a margin of 1,269,501 votes. The national turnout was 72% of the population eligible to vote. So, the overall democratic decision of the British electorate was to “Leave the European Union”, with England and Wales voting to “Leave” while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to “Remain”.
As the above information shows “democracy” is understood in terms of the outcome of a single substantive referendum, moreover, a referendum in which the voting citizens in only two out of four constituent British countries, rather than a majority of all UK citizens in all British constituent countries, voted to leave the EU. The UK is to leave the EU on 31 January 2020 with a British population arguably equally divided between leaving and remaining in the EU. “Democracy” is here understood as “the winner (Leavers) takes all”, with the losers (Remainers) becoming a page in the history books!
It remains to be experienced as to whether the promises given to the British people in consequence of leaving the EU will come to fruition. The situations and events in the national life of the UK over the coming years will reveal the truth or otherwise of the Brexiteer promises and their insistent expressions of the “democratic will” of the British people.
In the meantime, it is legitimate to ask as to whether some of the other outstanding concerns of democrats in the UK will merit the attention given to democracy by the Leave proponents in the EU Referendum. Such concerns would include the following:
• The reform of the voting system in the UK. At present this is the “first past the post” system of electing local and national governments, as well as referenda. It has been consistently shown that a “proportional” voting system would be a more just and more universal system of voting.
When it suits their purposes, successive British governments have been fond of directing attention to the successful practices of other countries – why not a more modern and democratic form of electing governments?
• The reform of the British House of Lords. This chamber of British government is composed of unelected persons, perhaps representing designated political parties but not associated with a specifically designated political constituency or electorate. Members of the House of Lords are appointed, often in consequence of political patronage. Moreover, “Lords” or “Peers” (for such are members of the House of Lords known in parliament and in daily life) are appointed for the duration of their lives.
Consequences of this system include the reality that, by its very nature, the House of Lords discriminates in favour of an elderly and ill-represented membership. So too, the numbers of members in House of Lords is grossly disproportionate to its democratic functions and responsibilities. Adding more calumny to democracy is the fact that the House of Lords also admits the unelected bishops of the Church of England, the so-called “State Church” in a multi-faith society.
• It is widely considered that “democracy lies at the heart of the rule of law” and that a “democratic society” is one in which there is a functioning government that upholds human rights through a Parliament that is sovereign. The fact that, for many in the recent EU Referendum, the decision of the people was regarded as sovereign, and not the House of Representatives in Parliament, indicates that the British Constitution is minimally known. A major factor in this is that the British Constitution remains in an unwritten form.
Democracy permits representation of the people. Therefore, democracy requires an active citizenry that takes part in public life, is educated to so act in a politically responsible way and is sufficiently politically astute in order to avoid being manipulated. In this way, the citizenry’s freedom under the law of the land is maximized. It is to be understood that the “basic standards in political, social and economic rights are necessary to ensure that everyone can play a meaningful role in political life”.
For the above reasons it is fundamental that the British Constitution is in written form and can be made available to the perusal and understanding of everyone.
• Probably the most undemocratic institution in British life is the monarchy. The UK is a Constitutional Monarchy. This is a form of government in which “a non-elected monarch functions as the head of state within the limits of the constitution. Political power in a constitutional monarchy is shared between the monarch and an organized government such as the British Parliament”. Nevertheless, the people of the UK are often falsely regarded as the “subjects” of the monarch and not as “citizens” of the UK.
One constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor, has defined a constitutional monarch as “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule.” So, a constitutional monarch acts as a visible symbol of national unity, and the exercise of their powers are generally a formality, without the sovereign enacting personal political preferences.
In the UK, the monarch is determined through the hereditary line of the House of Windsor. However, it is not just the head of this house that is maintained by the British State, it is the whole extended family – who are given “royal” titles. Most of these “royals” at best have representational roles and little to do with the political and democratic functions of the British State. Moreover, none of this family have ever been elected to perform any form of role or function.
The above are a selection of aspects of British life that, as important as they are, do not function according to democratic principles, are matters of governance that have generally been avoided by successive British governments, and have never in modern times been the subject of a substantive people’s referendum. A list of such issues could include the perpetuation of an honours system that bestows awards based in ranks within the “British Empire”, e.g., MBE, OBE, as well as the role and function of the Church of England as the State Church of the British nation.
It is to be noted that most silence on the above-mentioned matters comes from those, politicians and media commentators included, who were most vocal about “democracy” being enacted through and determinative of the outcome of the 2016 British EU Referendum on membership of the EU. Surely the time has come for the citizens of the UK to be permitted to exercize their constitutional rights to determine the shape and outcome of each of these matters.
Democracy in the 21st century existence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demands nothing less.
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Music to be cherished

“I have placed death before life, wrote Charles Gounod, “because in the order of eternal things death precedes life.” The French composer was speaking about his oratorio Mors et Vita. This is a work filled with operatic drama, soaring orchestral music and meaningful solo passages sung with clarity of purpose and diction.
Perhaps the music is exemplified by the middle section of the work, the celebrated “Judex”, with its memorable melody – a signature tune for the whole work. Indeed, it was this piece of music, with its sensuous spirit and captivating appeal, first heard on my car radio, that awakened my interest in the whole work. It was to be some awakening and a recording of the music was immediately purchased.
The chosen recording, the Warner Classics 2-disc digital set from 1992, features a splendid quartet of Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Nadine Denize (alto), John Aler (tenor) and Jose van Dam (baritone), accompanied by Christopher Kuhlmann (organ), the Orfeon Donostiarra Chorus and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. All components are superbly managed by Michel Plasson, a conductor totally inside the music of Gounod. The orchestra is exhilarating and the soloists inspirational across the whole spectrum of this piece. Understandably, Hendricks illuminates the soprano lines with often incandescent singing, and van Dam commands the baritone’s pronouncements.
It is to be regretted that this work seems not to have entered the concert repertoire as it deserves greater recognition and wider appreciation than it apparently has. Perhaps this situation is owed to the fact that the work runs for in excess of 156 minutes. So too, the work is in three parts and, whilst the first part, “Death”, is a requiem that could stand alone as a composition, it is, nevertheless, an intrinsic part of the whole.
Whilst the above may be the case, it is interesting to note that the music itself was composed in the wake of Charles Gounod’s highly acclaimed The Redemption – an attempt to continue the impact and value of that work. According to the musicologist Richard Langham Smith, the Mors et Vita shows the musical influence of Bach and Wagner. It was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII.
Be that as it may, Mors et Vita is itself a composition to be cherished with its musical drama, operatic singing, striking orchestral passages and a primary musical motif which is reiterated throughout the work. According to the composer, the essential features of the ideas in the motif are “the tears which death causes us to shed here below; the hope of a better life; the solemn dread of unerring justice; the tender and filial trust in eternal Love.”
As mentioned in the foregoing, Mors et Vita has three sections:
First Part: Mors (Death), a fully-fledged requiem with a prologue and an epilogue. The music opens with a sombre passage leading to a series of triumphant choruses, with brass predominating, and solo parts for tenor and soprano sung against a lyrical orchestral accompaniment. This flavour of music continues in each appropriate section of the requiem, orchestral drama alternating with individual contributions from the soloist, striking cymbals with quieter passages illuminated by the strings of the harp. A choral component provides something of a heavenly vision. Musically, the seriousness of “Death” is brought to consciousness, but its sting is removed, sorrow is replaced by joy.
Second Part: Judicium (Judgement), the most celebrated component of this delicious oratorio, is first introduced by the violins in concert with the chorus – a languorous idyll that develops into a powerful chorale. It is this section that provides the most eloquent portions of what this oratorio offers: soaring and inspirational choral singing; clear and satisfying, and somewhat seductive, solo contributions; tense and powerful orchestral accompaniment in the louder passages; noble, tender and melodious in the quieter music. As the section nears its conclusion, the latent sorrow of the first part and the “Judgement” of this second part is refined by an expectation of the expulsion of pain.
Third Part: Vita (Life), a section comprising of sustained emotion and the expression of happiness. The above-mentioned qualities of the soloists, orchestra and chorus are all present in this section as the work moves towards a joyful choral finale. “Life” is quietly introduced, again with the use of the baritone voice, and the music gradually builds towards its climax as the chorus reprises the Judex theme of the second part. It could be said that the work had a double ending. The consummate choral ending of the “ergo sum alpha et omega” could well have concluded the work most satisfactorily, but the composer continues with a joyful “Hosanna…”, in order to bring the entire piece to an extended but appropriate and satisfying conclusion.
The version on Warner Classics is probably as good as it comes. The soloists are all first rate and sing flawlessly – it would be difficult to put together a foursome of esteemed soloists as good as those on this recording. The chorus is full-bodied and harmonious, often incandescent, and the conductor is in full control of a strong, responsive and expansive orchestra in a musical composition full of idiomatic structures and musical challenges. The recorded sound is clear and well-spaced, allowing the music to expand at the climaxes with the quieter passages deftly but firmly controlled and sensitively executed.
Charles Gounod’s oratorio, Mors et Vita, is a ‘must have’ piece of music for any lover of classical music, and certainly those with an interest in sacred or secular choral music. This is sublime music, superbly recorded, supremely satisfying. Music to be cherished.


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An historical legacy

Daniel Ellsberg, the “Watergate” commentator, said that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considered the book to be “indispensable” reading. I speak, of course, of the Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone book The Untold History of the United States.
Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and the director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Oliver Stone is a Hollywood movie director who has won numerous Academy Awards for his work on such iconic films as Wall Street, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone further directed a DVD series of the same name from the book. The documentary series is compulsive viewing.
The book is a valuable insight for any student or chronicler of the history of the United States of America. Perhaps this statement should be qualified with the further statement that the American history with which the book deals is the relatively modern history of the USA. The material commences near the beginning of the 20th century with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. This is also the period of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the overall narrative. The period before the 20th. Century receives sparse comment, except in passing
So, the focus of the book is the history of the period that the authors, Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, name as the century which saw “the rise and decline of the American empire”. Using the “latest research and recently declassified documents” the book builds a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire – “the most powerful and dominant force the world has ever seen”. Further, it is the view of the book’s authors that this empire has “determined the course of world events for the interests of the few across the twentieth century and beyond.” According to Oliver Stone, these events and the interests behind them, are little understood by the citizens of the USA.
In his DVD commentary, Oliver Stone has stated that a primary reason for co-writing the book and making the documentary series is to make Americans, and particularly young Americans, more generally aware of an American history that is rarely mentioned in the nation’s classrooms.
The latest edition of the book, published in 2019, has a section on “The Truth on Trump”. The latest Blu-Ray, four disc version of Oliver Stone’s documentary series includes two Prologues (I) “Chapter A: “WW1 and the Russian Revolution”, and (2) “Chapter B: 1920-40”, as well as “A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone.” Reading the actual book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information on the relevant 20th Century events, contains a most impressive catalogue of notes and references, and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that are rarely part of contemporary awareness or discussion.
The DVD documentaries bring the full force of the book to the screen and impacts both the imagination and the conscience with the breadth and depth of its footage. It helps the enquirer to understand why this history has rarely seen the light of day in the educational establishments of the USA.
Particularly of interest to this reader was the sections of the book that mentioned the figure of Henry Wallace. Wallace was the Minister of Agriculture in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration in the USA prior to and during WW2. Wallace was pastoralist and a passivist. He was expected to be named as Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidential candidate at the 1944 USA national elections. Wallace had made a distinct impression in his role in the Roosevelt government and was known for his anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist views and his deep concern for human rights. He was more popular amongst the American electorate than all other vice-presidential candidates combined.
However, at the 11th hour before the 1944 elections, Roosevelt was persuaded by conservative power brokers in the Democratic Party to replace Wallace with Harry S. Truman. Truman was a little known and undistinguished Senator from mid-west America. He had made few enemies and he was considered unlikely to rock the boat. Kuznick and Stone point out that, as well as his apparent racism and antisemitism, little thought was apparently given to the attributes that would be necessary for Truman to lead the USA and the world in the challenging times ahead.
It was as USA President that Harry Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is open to speculation as to what world history since 1944 would have been had Henry Wallace become President of the USA. Perhaps a matter of “altered states”?
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with the written and filmed material: Do Americans really know and understand their shared and complicated history? How do the citizens of the USA recall the small details and forgotten players that influenced some of the biggest events from America’s past? Will American children, present and future, get the whole story from reading their history books? How will the foregoing affect the ongoing history of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone narrates the DVD filming. His quiet and sombre voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to important, for the world as well as the USA, summations, insights and conclusions. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nixon, Reagan, Bush senior and junior, Obama and, of course, Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history are also covered, e.g., Woodrow Wilson and General Smedley Butler, James F. Byrnes and Henry Wallace, as well as many of those in-between. Figures are combined with facts, characters with consequences, in a narrative that is never less than compelling.
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who had studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book and documentary series a valuable source of information and recollection – urging a desire to forego retirement and take up the history books again with, of course, a focus on American history. Without equivocation, I can recommend both the book and the DVD series to the widest readership.
In this book Oliver Stone offers his personal testimony: “From the outset I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our history”. He dedicates the book to his own children as well as “the better world that they and all children deserve”. As well, he affirms his faith in the “often misguided, sometimes destructive and occasionally exalted species to someday achieve that goal”.


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Values that unite

A few weeks ago, the House of Commons was presented with the latest Queen’s Speech in which the government, despite the expectation of a General Election, set out its priorities for the coming period of Parliament. It is rare for such speeches at any time to focus on issues of human rights, especially with so much current attention being on the Brexit debate and the ongoing political uncertainty. The latest Queen’s Speech was no exception.
With so much in the political and social worlds that seem to divide the British nation at present, it is timely and helpful to take a step back and focus on the values that unite us – especially the fundamental rights and freedoms we all share.

Amnesty International (AI) is an organisation that exists in order to protect and enhance human rights worldwide. So, in anticipation of the 2019 Queen’s Speech, AI put together an alternative Queen’s Speech in which it listed its seven human rights’ priorities for challenging injustices – both in the UK and around the world.

In what follows I will set out these seven priorities and, with the encouragement of AI, provide a brief explanation of what AI has stated about these priorities.
1. A Bill to embed respect for family life in all immigration and asylum decision making, including enabling more refugee families to be reunited in safety in the UK.
The Government should underline respect for the best interests of children and the importance of family life by extending family reunion rights to child refugees in the UK, so that children have the right to bring their parents here to join them. Adult refugees should be able to sponsor their elderly parents, siblings, and children up to the age of 25.
2. Measures to strengthen support and protection for human rights defenders.
Championing human rights around the world should be at the heart of UK foreign policy – and this must include increasing support for brave human rights defenders who face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse.
Defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things – lawyers, journalists, activists – defending the environment, uncovering corruption, promoting the rights of women and girls. They are the agents of change in their communities, and they need strategic support from the UK which includes access to funding, emergency protection, greater promotion and recognition.
3. A Bill to overhaul the UK’s immigration system to ensure respecting people’s rights is the primary priority of the system.
This must include ending indefinite immigration detention, restoring legal aid for immigration and nationality cases, guaranteeing the best interests of children, and ensuring no one – including EU nationals living in the UK – is unjustly deprived of rights to British citizenship.
4. A Domestic Abuse Bill that gives equal protection to all survivors of domestic abuse.
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill could be a trailblazing piece of legislation, but it will fail unless it meets the needs of migrant women. They must have access to safe reporting systems, without the fear of immigration enforcement, and be able to access public funds and support services. Migrant women should be asked if they are safe, not where they are from.
5. A clear commitment that the UK will remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit.
It is vital that human rights are prioritised and protected throughout and beyond the Brexit process. The Government must also commit to retaining the Human Rights Act and to restoring the domestic rights and protections which UK citizens have lost through the previous Government’s decision to scrap the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the general principles of EU law.
6. Legislation to strengthen the arms export control system to ensure the UK complies fully with its human rights.
The fact that the UK has supplied more than £4 billion of military hardware to Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, despite the clear risk of it being used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law, shows that the current system is not fit for purpose and requires a complete overhaul.
7. Regulations that will enable free, safe, legal and local abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July 2019, decriminalised abortion, provided a moratorium on prosecutions and made abortion lawful – including in cases where there is a risk to health, serious malformation of the foetus and in cases of sexual crime. The Government must now put in place regulations to enable free, safe, legal and local services by 31 March 2020.
As anticipated, the recent Queen’s Speech said little about fundamental human rights and the values that underpins them. Nevertheless, Amnesty International continues its work of protecting people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity is denied.
As a global movement of over 7 million people, AI is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. It is composed of ordinary people from across the world standing up for human rights.
The organisation investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilises the public, and helps transform societies to create a safer, more just world. On reflection, it would have been wiser, more prudent and just, to have spent the time, effort and money involved in mounting a Queen’s Speech on advancing the cause of human rights issues – in this country and elsewhere.
Amnesty International has received the Nobel Peace Prize for its life-saving work.
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Conflicts of interests

The UK is facing a General Election on 12 December. At this election we will choose persons to represent the people as Members of Parliament in the British House of Commons. We choose such persons in the belief that they will devote their time and energies to representing us at Westminster. After all, our system of government in the UK is that of a parliamentary democracy.
Moreover, those elected to this national office will be expected to serve their constituencies in a full-time capacity. To this end their salary (over twice the national average), benefits and pensions are generous. We fondly believe our MPs are dedicated to the interests of their constituents and that these interests, or at least what they think are those of the country, always come first. However, is this really the case? Do tenured members of parliament work exclusively on behalf of their constituents?
We sometimes read stories in our daily newspapers of politicians who abuse their office in order to enhance their financial status, for example, by mis-stating their expenses. So too, during the debates over Brexit we have learned of allegations of politicians being backed by what has been described as ‘dark money’. However, little detail of such machinations has been forthcoming and certainly do not seem to have significantly featured in the debates.
The respected weekend newspaper the Observer recently published an article about a Scottish politician who decided to enlarge her income. The politician was of the view that her job of representing the citizens of her constituency in the east of Scotland would have left her time to also represent a global Public Relations firm. Her income from this latter source would have added substantially to her remuneration as an MP.
The politician in question is regarded as ‘an astute and canny politician’ who, after becoming an MP in 2011, quickly rose to prominence in her party and displayed impressive leadership qualities. Not surprisingly, therefore, this news attracted adverse publicity with the result that the MP subsequently opted to drop the arrangement.
The article did not impute any wrongdoing on the part of the politicians, nor did she try to conceal her consideration of a lucrative second income. The issue raised by the newspaper article isn’t so much that she briefly considered ‘the boost that an additional income would bring to her remuneration as an MP and its effect on her lifestyle, but how this would be understood by voters.’
It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand why it is that private firms are attracted to popular politicians. It is not only their personal characteristics but also the access they provide to corridors of power and decision-making. It would be expected that the politicians would be effective at lobbying for the interests they are paid to represent. Whilst constituents may be able to understand and even appreciate the need for a politician to earn more money, they may also have ‘a problem with the potential for a conflict of interests: theirs and the politician’s new employer’.
There were times in my own professional experience when I undertook two jobs at the same time. The primary reason for this was that no single job specification was sufficiently full to demand a full-time salary. On more than one occasion a primary first job appointment was linked with or dependent upon a second appointment. Sometimes this meant that I took on two appointments which, together, required more time than a single appointment permitted. In this case the job load included weekend work, with only one non-working day per week. In this way I acquired an appropriate single salary.
However, on any occasion when I undertook two appointments, the employers were aware of and in definite agreement with this arrangement. It was a way of serving two conjoint tasks without the need for an employer to provide a single full-time salary for either appointment. The foregoing arrangement generally met with the approval of those who were appointing and those being served by the appointments. Indeed, both parties were approving of opportunities to further the work of either, or both, of these appointments with further academic study and, therefore, the dual appointments could be considered as honest and value for money.
It seems axiomatic, therefore, that most voters would surely consider that all politicians, not only the Scottish MP earlier mentioned, should regard their job as a people’s representative in national government as a sole occupation. They are public servants for the duration of their period of office in parliament and their servanthood should be exclusive.
It is to be acknowledged that ‘the work of an MP can be at the mercy of the public’s capriciousness every few years and that there may be scant long-term security in the job’, but this is offset by an MP’s remuneration package and, as the newspaper article adds, ‘the opportunity to connect with potential future employers.’ An MP’s remuneration should preclude second jobs as, for instance lobbyists for private enterprises, newspaper columnists, professional consultations as medical or law practitioners, or holding official positions in industrial occupations.
The Observer article that carried the story of the Scottish MP seeking employment on top of but outside of her parliamentary duties, concludes by asserting that ‘she is only one of many among our elected representatives across the whole spectrum of party politics who doesn’t seem to have grasped why attempts to maximise their parliamentary experience are regarded dimly by the public’. This is so because the public regards ‘the task of making laws and representing them in the highest chamber in the land as a privilege that requires their exclusive devotion.’
As the 2019 General Election approaches it would do well for politicians who will be elected to the House of Commons, as well as those British citizens who elect them to office, to remembers this. Those elected to Westminster should be happy ‘to forfeit outside financial interests in exchange for an MP’s remuneration package and not expect to be hailed as heroes for their sacrifice.’
With further reference to the Observer newspaper, 38 Degrees, the British not-for-profit political-activism organisation (to which this writer subscribes and has commented on in this blog), has recently informed the movement’s supporters that:
On Friday, we broke the story that the metropolitan police have passed a file of criminal evidence against Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign to the Crown Prosecution Service.
On Sunday, the Observer newspaper reported that Boris Johnson knew about this illegal overspend and failed to tell the authorities. But here’s the thing. Even if Vote Leave is charged and found guilty, that doesn’t mean that the people who ran and fronted the campaign will face any kind of sanction.
More than three years after Vote Leave broke electoral law, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in Downing Street. And Cummings is now in charge of another massive political campaign – this time to get Johnson elected to run our country.
Whichever political party you support, and however you feel about Brexit, it can’t be right that those who break the laws of our democracy are never held accountable. Right now, you can be charged more for touting tickets at a football match that for breaking electoral law.
A conflict of interests is ‘a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, and serving one interest could involve working against another.’ (Wikipedia). In public politics, as well as in private affairs, conflicts of interests have the potential to be divisive, demeaning and destructive. They should be avoided.


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Far from over

We hope to reach again a Europe in which men will be proud to say, ‘I am a European.’ We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land – and that without lessening any of their love and loyalty to their home and birthplace. We hope that wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European continent, they will truly feel – Here I am at home, I am a citizen of this country too.” (Winston Churchill, Amsterdam, 1948)
The words of the above quotation come from Dr Denis MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2017). Sad to say but, presently, the answer to this statement remains in the balance.
I am writing these words on the day the self-styled reincarnation of Winston Churchill, that narcissistic, bombastic, duplicitous and opportunistic Old Etonian and presently the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is attempting to get his withdrawal deal with the European Union through the British House of Commons. If passed, the deal will take the UK out of the European Union. The ramifications of this deal are frightening to contemplate.
Clearly, Boris Johnson does not know his Churchill quite as intimately as he seemingly feels he does.
Dr Denis MacShane was a Labour MP serving in Tony Blair’s government as Minister for Europe. He was first elected as MP for Rotherham in 1994 and served until his resignation in 2012. MacShane studied at Oxford and London Universities. He was and remains a prominent commentator on European issues. He is well qualified for this task having lived and worked in different European countries, speaks a range of European languages, and is reported to have “a contact book of politicians and journalists in most European member states.”
Dr MacShane’s book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (see the above reference), is the second of a trilogy of books on the theme of Brexit. The trilogy began with Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (I.B. Taurus, 2015) and concluded with the recent publication of Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain (I.B. Taurus, 2019).
In the first book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, Dr MacShane examines the issue of whether Britain will leave the EU. He indicates that the question of Brexit – a British exit from the EU – was high on the political agenda in the UK. This situation followed the Conservative victory in the 2015 General Election and the mounting pressure from within the Conservative Party for the UK to exit the EU. MacShane looks at the history of Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe and shows how “the possibility of Brexit had become increasingly more likely.”
He looks at the “key personalities who had shaped Britain’s European policy – from Churchill to Wilson and Heath to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron” – and “the key issues of immigration and the economy” which had heightened Eurosceptic feeling in the UK. In so doing, MacShane touches on one of the “most divisive political issues of our times” as the nation moved towards a referendum on Europe and considered its future place in the world.
In the second book Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe, Dr MacShane discusses the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 and the inconclusive election just twelve months later. He asserts that both events “unleashed a wave of chaos and uncertainty.” He argues that “Brexit will not mean full rupture with Europe and that British business will overcome the right-wing forces of the Conservative back-benches and UKIP.” In consequence, both forces were weakened due to the ill-fated election gamble of June 2017 by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May.
Denis MacShane correctly predicts that British negotiations with the EU in the post-Referendum period “will prove to be excruciating.” He considers that Britain cannot and will not divorce itself from the continent of Europe, “Indeed, the European question will remain the defining political issue of our time.”
He further considers that public and political opinion in both the UK and EU member states has never confronted such an issue before – namely “A decision by one of the world’s largest economies and democracies to withdraw from the world’s biggest open-border trading bloc, which has managed to secure peace and the sharing of laws and democracy between more than 30 nations, …as well as those seeking to join.”
Rather alarmingly, MacShane sees Brexit as just “the first step in a bigger nationalist campaign aimed at destroying the EU and returning to a Europe of rival nation states behind closed borders.” To reach this conclusion Dr MacShane first examines the impact of Brexit – in the UK, the EU, with reference also to Donald Trump and the U.S.A, before dissecting why Brexit happened.
Following this, Dr MacShane provides evidence as to why Brexit disrupts Britain from within and will cut off the UK with respect to its near and far neighbours. Finally, he shows how Brexit will change Europe in terms of the requirement for a new politics. His “Afterword” discusses how the UK stays in Europe.
Brigid Loffan (Director, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies) says that the third book in MacShane’s Brexit trilogy Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain, spells out why “Brexit will morph into a Brexiternity.” Loffan is of the view that Denis MacShane’s book rightly argues that the English politics that gave rise to Brexit will result in “years and years of Brexit issues in Britain but also in Ireland (I might add Scotland) and the rest of Europe as well.”
Indeed, as MacShane explains, “Brexit will affect the lives of future generations, deal or no deal, and even threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.” Even as this article is being written two days after the British government has made a deal with the EU, it is clear, as Denis Macshane outlines, that “No matter what happens, a ‘Brexiternity’ of negotiations and internal political wrangling in Britain lies ahead.”
The Guardian newspaper’s Polly Toynbee has said that, “Brexit is far from over. It is a Gordian knot that requires new and strong political leadership in order to be cut.” Referring to the last book in the Denis MacShane trilogy, Jon Snow, the journalist and presenter of the Channel 4 News, considers that “Leavers and Remainers alike will learn from this book as we face a decade in which Brexit will dominate our national life.”
Toynbee and Snow are among a veritable celebrity line-up of journalists, commentators, writers and politicians, amongst others, who have lauded the above trilogy of books about Brexit by Dr Denis MacShane. This writer is no exception.


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Serving a purpose

“Unless secularism’s role in the development of human rights and freedom is well understood, theocrats will be well placed to erode them”. These are the words of the Chief Executive of the National Secular Society (NSS) in the UK, Stephen Evans. He was writing in an article for the Autumn Bulletin of the NSS. The article was called, “We must teach the young how they benefit from secularism”.
The article was a basic introduction to a new initiative of the NSS – the provision of a range of teaching resources for schools under the banner of “Exploring Secularism”. The rational for this initiative is the NSS’s belief that secularism is worth celebrating. This is so because, “Its principles under-pin liberal societies and the political institutions which have been built to protect individual human rights to freedom of thought, speech and expression”.
The implicit assumption in this view is that religious dogma and authority subjugates human reason. Secularism endeavours to liberate human reason from these shackles and, it is proposed, in the process enables human material and health benefits to flourish. Religion is bondage; secularism is freedom. In the view of Stephen Evans, and with reference to schools in England and Wales, “It is bizarre, therefore, that something so significant rarely features in the school curriculum”.
As I read Stephen Evans’ article, I reflected on the content of the religious studies curriculum that I was involved in teaching when I was the Head of Religious Studies (RS) at a Northampton comprehensive school. The teaching of the RS curriculum was as broad as the system at the time would permit, including a substantial proportion of curriculum content and time being devoted to the teaching of both secular and religious philosophy and ethics. This was particularly the case at senior school level.
However, the syllabi for the RS, Philosophy and Ethics courses at the school never involved a specific course on “Secularism”. With hindsight, this situation was regrettable. The RS department of the school would have been the most appropriate location for space to be made for a genuine approach to the topics that Secularism would introduce to the syllabus – and the staff of that department would have been more than adequate for the task of teaching the subject.
It is the view of many involved with both Religious Education (RE) and Secularism in the UK that the approach to RE is outdated and that a new approach is overdue. The latter would mean that RE is broadened out or make substantial way for what the NSS describes as “A new broader civic education that encompasses citizenship and human rights”.
Such an approach would obviously include the exploration of the diverse range of worldviews, practices and beliefs, that currently are studied in RE (otherwise Religious Studies) courses. However, in addition to the role that religious ideas play in people’s lives and in society, would be added the respective role that secularism should play. Secularism has a specific role to play in that exploration.
The NSS article of Stephen Evans strongly suggests that, as emerging citizens of 21st century societies, “pupils should have an awareness of the importance of secular principles”. Amongst other things, this would include the separation of religion and the state, and the way in which secularist principles impact their lives.
Secularist principles should not be taken for granted and it is necessary that steps are taken to ensure that secularism is not misunderstood or wilfully maligned. Again, Stephen Evans is instructive when he states that, “It is not unknown for those eager to impose their religious faith on others have groundlessly portrayed secularism as a threat to religious freedom, promulgating misconceptions – routinely equating it with state-enforced atheism and even totalitarianism”.
A focused role on the educational curriculum would enable students to better understand and appreciate Secularism, as well as counteract the false views its opponents promote. Though it is a bit late for me to make use of the Exploring Secularism resources, it is obvious to me that the package will serve a valuable purpose as a teaching aid – and it is free!
My wife and me recently spend two enjoyable weeks touring Scotland by car. The focus for this visit was primarily the north-east of the country, using Inverness and Aberdeen as bases. With a current membership of the Scottish Heritage, much of our time was spent visiting the many and varied properties that the trust manages.
A considerable number of these properties were self-entitled as “castles”. Many of them were grand homes that had been extended to become even grander, and safer. We spent many hours listening to guided commentaries on the history of the properties.
Amongst other things, we learned that many of the grand homes and castles, a number of which were located within extensive estates and quite stunning locations, were either built or had been extended by royal personages, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and various other citizens who had accumulated their wealth from successful dealings in war and, more especially and, for me, surprisingly, the slave trade.
Prior to this visit, I was aware that warfare was almost a routine past-time amongst the Scottish clans. However, the association of the country of my birth with the slave trade was something of a shock to my system. This timely visit served its purpose.


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Not what it seems

Tom Mills is a lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University. In his short, but most interesting and quite provocative book, “The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service”, Mills relates the story of an incident in the experience of John Reith, the BBC’s founding father.
Mills writes of the day, 12th May, 1926, when, as Reith was reading the news on the BBC’s lunchtime radio news bulletin, he was handed a note telling him that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) had called off the UK’s first and only General Strike. The strike was in support of the mine workers and had lasted for nine days.
Reith and the BBC, in supporting the government of the day, were opposed to the strike and, in a later radio announcement, John Reith stated: “Our first feeling on hearing of the termination of the General Strike must be one of profound thankfulness to Almighty God, who has led us through this supreme trial with national health unimpaired.” Clearly, for Reith, God was on the side of the government and the establishment of the day, including the BBC. It was unthinkable that the Almighty could be on the side of the striking workers!
Mills tells us that John Reith, later to become Lord Reith, finished his radio announcement with what he called “his little thing” – a personal contribution to the celebrations. This “little thing” was, in fact, a reading of William Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times”. This poem, in the form of Hubert Parry’s patriotic hymn “Jerusalem”, had become popular during the Great War. As Reith read out the words of this poem, Parry’s hymn played in the background.
When Reith had finished his recital, the BBC choir sung the final verse of Parry’s hymn, “a rousing call to arms for the Christian peoples of England”. One wonders whether they would have been joined in this singing by the “ragged trousered philanthropists”, the poor and downtrodden of Edwardian England,  whose forsaken lives are minutely, intimately and superbly described by Robert Tressell in his book of the same name,
John Reith believed that, during the General Strike, it was the role of the BBC to “announce truth”, to be on the side of law and order, to support the government, therefore, to oppose the mine workers. Blake’s poem and Parry’s Hymn, in the form of the song “Jerusalem”, were subverted and used in order to serve this purpose.
This was not for the first time, as a review by the journalist, Warwick McFadyen, reminds us when he says that “the music, Jerusalem, stands the test of time. It began life in service to its country. It was a soldier for Britain during the First World War…, when the scales of optimism were falling from British eyes to the reality of the horrors, it was felt that the public and the fighting men needed their spirits bolstered.”
It can be argued that, as such, the combination of the poem and the hymn in what is now known as the song, ”Jerusalem”, has been used ever since in the attempt to inspire English, if not British, patriotism, loyalty, service and effort. However, the song is not what it seems.
A glance at the Wikipedia entry for Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” will familiarise the reader with the words of the song. The song-writer Jeff Beck considers that “the song has something for nearly everyone, the patriot, the radical, the loyalist, the rebel, but who all had one defining element: an identity with their country.” But the identity is with England, not the United Kingdom.
Yet, despite its popularity and the lack of protest over its words, the use that has been made of the song – from state funerals to sporting events, even at the London Olympics in 2012 – has never enabled it to become England’s specific national anthem. The English continue to use the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen”, as their anthem.
The words of the song have been described as “pure fantasy”; some might even suggest that they are nonsense. Did Jesus ramble through the green hills of England or be seen on England’s pleasant pastures? Has Christianity ever made any worthwhile or lasting difference to the lives of England’s working classes, during the dark days of the industrial revolution or since? Did John Reith give even minimal thought to the actual words of the song when he thanked the Almighty for the victory of the ruling classes, political and social, over those who worked in the “dark satanic mills” during the early part of the 20th century?
However, attempts at a literal interpretation of Blake’s poem fail to understand its somewhat cryptic nature, its critical comment on the nature and conditions of life in England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. John Reith clearly misunderstood and misapplied Blake’s poem, with or without Parry’s music!
As he recited Blake’s poem against the background of Parry’s hymn, what genuine interest did the future Lord Reith and the BBC have for those who worked in the coal mines of the countryside and the factories of the cities, those who laboured for the wealthy owners of industry and a government which controlled the conditions of that labour?
It is the view of some critics that when he wrote the words of his poem, Blake was “away with the fairies”. Perhaps the same may be said, and more pertinently, of John Reith when he added his “little thing” to his radio broadcast on that fateful day in 1926. It is unequivocal, therefore, that the song, “Jerusalem”, is not what it seems.
It may have varying interpretations and be presented by a variety of artistic talent. In this respect, the words of the electric guitarist Jeff Beck seem apposite, “No doubt this recent resurfacing will fade, the mental fight will ease, the chariot of fire will pass behind the dark satanic mills.” Yet, “like all great works, it stays within one, breathing slowly and quietly in the background. It is part of you” – at least if you are English!


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