Z is for … Zeitgeist

So, it’s a cop-out; I’m using a foreign word for this because there aren’t that many to choose from. But it is a word in relatively common use in English.

What does it mean? A rough translation would be: the spirit of the age. Or, in more modern terminology: the current, established narrative that shapes the way we see the world.

And that is why I want to reflect on it.

How to Friends respond to the spirit of the age?

Early Friends

I’m not a Quaker historian, but my limited understanding of early Friends is that they were rebels; they rebelled against the spirit of their age because of it’s class system, inequality, power and dominance of church and aristocracy and so on.

London Quakers

The reason early Quakers established equality between men and women in the movement wasn’t just expediency although it was essential for them to ensure that everyone’s talent and contribution counted, it was also a deep belief in equality of all before God.

And it is possible to read Quaker history (though not always, I guess) as a history of rebellion against the spirit of the age.

Early Christianity

Early Friends also saw themselves as the direct descendants (in a way) of the early Church; the early Christian communities that were not yet part of a State Church; the communities where people pooled their resources and deliberately became equal in material means to support their belief in equality.

The crunch for the Church came when it was established as the official religion of the State. The whole of the following nearly 1700 years of history is littered with the detrimental consequences of this step; with the abuse of Christianity for power of the powerful and oppression of the powerless.

Early Friends (and many of the other groups of seekers of that era in England – and elsewhere at that and other times) reacted to the domination of a corrupt system that held ordinary people down.

What of today…

What is the spirit of our age? In the last few weeks there are a number of facets of this that have kept coming back to me:

First, there is that terrible word: aspiration; it has been hijacked by certain parts of the media. It has been hijacked by certain elements of our political discourse.

Just this morning, I was reading about one of the people running for the Conservative nomination for London Mayor, Soul Campbell. He says: ‘I look at the Conservatives and their ideology, and how they look at life is all about aspirational living and lifting yourself up.’ (The ‘I’, 24 June 2015, page 3)

Aspiration is seen in this narrative as purely individual; it’s about ‘lifting yourself up’; this may include your immediate family, you children, especially, but nothing and no-one else. In fact, the very possibility that others may be better at this and get further on career or property or housing ladder is the driver.

There is nothing about community in this; not about local community, not about the wider regional or national community; and certainly nothing about the global community.

It is the ideology that keeps migrants on boats or in detention centres in Italy and Greece and that permits our government to say: we won’t take them; nothing to do with us!

It is the ideology that wants to privatise everything, even publicly funded Housing Association housing because it feeds the aspiration of those lucky enough to have been allocated such housing – never mind those who haven’t and those who are still to come.

It is the ideology that is content to rob the poorest and most vulnerable in our society of the meagre basis of their living by cutting benefits.

Livingwage

It is the ideology that demands that everyone who wants to be seen as part of ‘the hard-working British families’ (another buzz word which is part of the spirit of the age) is available for work and working all of the time – so much so that GPs are supposed to work 7 days a week so that people who are sick don’t have to take time off work to go and see a doctor. What a crazy world!

And of course, what comes last in the priorities of this sort of thinking is the planet. Never mind that we have a major problem with carbon emissions – let’s make it easier to frack and harder to provide wind power. Why, because it makes money for the private sector. It allows them to follow their aspirations at the cost of the rest of us and the planet.

As I end this alphabet blog, I am left wondering how we can impact the spirit of the age? John Woolman believed firmly that slavery was wrong and that all that stemmed from slavery, all the wealth it created, all the products it made available were therefore not to be touched by those who wanted to abolish slavery.

British Friends, in their ‘minute 36’ of Yearly Meeting in 2015 (you can download and read the full minute here) have identified many of the things that are wrong with the spirit of our age, with the abuses of power, with oppression of the most vulnerable and with a whole raft of the wrong priorities set by our government. Let us find the strength to limit – if not to eliminate – the benefits we derive from these wrong priorities and let us find ways of making this known so that our stand can impact the spirit of tomorrow.

Y is for … ‘Forever Young’

The last few letter: just two more to go. But as with X and a few others on the way, this one has been difficult to decide on. Not for lack of choice in this case but because I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to focus on.

Then, on Tuesday this week (that’s 2 June 2015), I happened upon an item on the Internet. I don’t even remember how I happened upon it. But it was a link that had Patti Smith and Joan Baez in the title so I clicked on it and it was a YouTube video of on the occasion of the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award to Joan Baez at a ceremony in Berlin on 21 May 2015.

I watched it. It’s quite something. Not many people have been awarded this honour. You can see the list on Amnesty’s website.

You can find the full lyrics in various places on the Internet including a version of the song sung by Joan Baez with the lyrics displayed on screen. The images on screen are a bit saccharine but you can close your eyes to listen to it once you’ve read the lyrics.

It is a very beautiful song, which invokes the idea that youth (and age) aren’t just about the passage of time but also about a state of mind. It is a kind of prayer, which lists many of the things we might like to achieve but know are unattainable; that doesn’t make them any less important.

Key among them are: ‘May you always do for others and let others do for you’, May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong, May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift’.

Joan Baez recorded this song first in 1976 as far as I know. Of course she was quite young at the time!

But even more poignantly, in my search, I then came across a story of Pete Seeger in his 90s, in 2012, recording this song (with him doing the voice over for the text) for Amnesty International USA. So here’s the link to Amnesty International and the start of these thoughts.

The recording is available on YouTube

but there is also a slightly longer YouTube video about the story behind this recording, which is very heart warming. It’s really a ‘must see’!

It is really about making the message of the song much more explicit. It is saying that being young isn’t about age; it is about being open. And yes of course, chronological age has an impact on our lives. But whatever age we are we can still make a difference (just see Pete Seeger in the two videos); and in the dark times we are facing, in this country with this government, in the world at large with so many crises, so many violent conflicts, so much dogmatic ideology we need this kind of song and this kind of story. So take the time to listen; take the time to be encouraged by it; take the time to share it with others.

In a different context, I came across a reflection by the Revd. Paula Clifford at the end of a conference on ‘The Cost of Life on Earth: Companies, climate change and your money’ held on 30 March 2015 and arranged by the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility in Oxford:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, So that you may live deep within your heart

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people

So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,

So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world

So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Amen

To me, it’s another way of saying: and may you stay forever young.

X is for … putting your ‘x’ in the box

I have dithered about this on for months. What on earth does X stand for? And then suddenly, in the wake of the election (in the UK) last week – 7 May 2015 if you read this much later – I suddenly thought: x is the mark we make to indicate our choice, our vote in elections (and other situations where we have to vote on something). So, in a democracy, it’s a really important letter and symbol.

Just before the UK General Election, Britain YM met in session. For those of us who were actively engaged in the campaign, the timing wasn’t great. But in another sense, and in light of the fact that the theme of Britain YM was ‘Living out our Faith in the World’ it was well timed.

The question that this raises for me is this: what does putting you ‘x’ in a box on a ballot paper have to do with Quaker faith?

Ballot paper with x

Let’s start here: Quaker Faith and Practice, in paragraph 23.01 says:

Remember your responsibility as citizens for the government of your town and country, and do not shirk the effort and time this may demand. Do not be content to accept things as they are, but keep an alert and questioning mind. Seek to discover the causes of social unrest, injustice and fear; try to discern the new growing-points in social and economic life. Work for an order of society which will allow men and women to develop their capacities and will foster their desire to serve.

This comes from Advices and Queries in the 1964 edition and is also echoed in the current edition of Advices and Queries section 34.

So, it seems that it has long been recognised that engagement in political affairs is a rightful expression of our faith. And of course, participating in elections – as a voter – is the absolute minimum requirement.

And in the Swarthmore Lecture entitled Faith, power and peace, Diana Francis made it abundantly clear that we have to start from our faith that pushes us to embrace our peace testimony even if that seems to fly in the face of the world we live in. To her, and to me, the peace testimony isn’t an optional extra, anymore than the testimony of equality. They stem from the same place: ‘the conviction that all human beings are, in Isaac Pennington’s words, ‘unique, precious, a child of God’; to put it nontheistically, all incorporate the sacred and are born to love and be loved.’ (Diana Francis, Faith, power and peace, 2015, p. 4).

Penington,Isaac

And if that is the starting point then our involvement in politics – whether this is active by participating in a political party or standing for election, or passive, by simply taking a view and voting accordingly – then our politics must also stem from that conviction.

And so we come to the choices that were before us in May 2015. In many places up and down the country we were being urged to vote tactically. Not to vote for what we believed in, not to manifest our faith on the ballot paper, but to go for something that was not really what we wanted but not as bad as the alternative. Many people probably voted in that way. And we now know where that got us.

I have voted tactically myself in some elections – though not all that often. But this time round I decided that I have had it with that approach, for good.

Because voting tactically, by not voting for what I believe to be in tune with my faith, my conviction that leads me to the peace testimony and to the testimony of equality, I feel that I become morally bankrupt.

So why do so many people vote in this way? Friends urged me to do this, too.

It is really very simple: it’s because our electoral system, the First Past the Post system, the winner takes all attitude of our political system, is morally bankrupt. It suggests that answers are black and white (or blue and red in this case). It suggests that having open, broad dialogue between different positions that cover a spectrum of views is unstable and undesirable.

PR vs FPTP 2015

It’s true: such dialogue does not sit well with the sound bites and headlines so beloved of our equally morally bankrupt media. But we need to stand up and we need to demand change.

Not all Friends will agree on their politics; in this election, 19 Friends stood as candidates for 5 different parties. So party political points don’t work in this context. But the one thing we can – hopefully – agree on is that we need to reform the system so that the outcome reflects better what citizens think. This is necessary because it is fair; it is necessary because it is right; it is necessary because it supports equality – it gives a more equal weight to all the many ‘x’ all of us place on the ballot paper. But it is also necessary, because it will lead to more open discussion, greater tolerance and a more peaceful society.

Let us change the narrative of politics in this country; let us stop talking about who wins and who loses in elections that are broadly meaningless. Let us start talking about how we can make those elections more meaningful. And that means: getting involved, getting active, and doing far more than simply placing that little, innocuous ‘x’ in a box.

W is for … wars and rumours of wars

It’s pretty grim out there in the world. War has been on my mind, not because it’s something I like to think about but because it seems to be on the news daily and although it’s hard to be sure, it seems to be getting worse.

I’m part of the post war generation old enough to understand that war is awful without having had to live through it. A friend once described my generation’s experience of war as walking into a cinema just after the film has finished but knowing that it was incredibly painful for those who were there.

We’re a generation – especially in Europe, and even more so in Western Europe – who thought this would never happen to us. And so far, in some ways, of course it hasn’t.

We kid ourselves, though, if we think there’s no war. And it is happening in a number of different ways all of which affect us and other people in different ways.

I am reminded of John Woolman’s famous quote: ‘May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.’

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First, there is the language that is being used. Whatever problem we face we seem to be waging war on it: the war on drugs, on terrorism, on gangs, on poverty, on disease, on cancer, and probably of all sorts of other things you can think of. We even have a well-respected charity in the UK named ‘War on Want’. And whilst we all know what we mean by that ‘war on…’ phrase, maybe we should stop and think before we use it.

Then there is the endless coverage of fighting in all sorts of places. And it’s not just actual wars. It’s whatever happens to be today’s worst atrocity. Hours and pages of media exposure; it gives those who would perpetrate these acts (which are crimes) the oxygen of publicity. That’s what they want. It has a double effect: it gives them their moment of fame (and glory) and thereby acts as a recruitment tool; and it makes the rest of us nervous and fearful. And on the back of both our governments find ways to restrict our freedoms, the very freedoms we are supposedly defending and which are supposedly under attack from those who wreak carnage on the world.

There are the stories of the victims; the refugees, the orphans, the maimed, the people who have lost their homes, their livelihood, their often already few possessions. We see them briefly. In tents in the snow in Syria; covered in burkas in Nigeria (that’s if they are women that have been captured by Boko Haram). They don’t often hold the limelight for long. They are soon forgotten in the rush to cover the next atrocity.

They never really get a voice. They often are just seen as ‘victims’: and to make them ‘innocent’ victims they generally have to be young or old, and preferably women.

What if we heard their views clearly? What if the media named each victim who is known? What if their stories, the way they are affected by the mayhem around them was the focus of the media coverage? Maybe that would have a different kind of impact on those who might be tempted to get involved in violence, be that in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, or on the streets of Paris, Copenhagen or London.

And of course, we must not forget the fact that our own society is being militarised. That too has an impact on war and the rumours of war.

And this has been stepped up quite significantly. The 2014 Quaker Peace and Social Witness publication: The New Tide of Militarisation shows this clearly including:

  • A programme costing £ 10.85 m to expand cadet forces in state schools
  • A programme of fast-tracking ex-military personnel into the education system
  • Statements by government ministers such as ‘Every child can benefit from the values of a military ethos.’ (Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education)
  • The introduction of an ‘Armed Forces Day’
  • The increasing insistence that anyone in the public eye (especially on TV) has to wear a red poppy during the run-up to Remembrance Day
  • The prominent role of the military in the security arrangements around the 2012 Olympics – including a warship moored in the Thames.

The publication has much more information and is well worth a read.

But the point here is: if we allow our world to be militarized to the extent that it is, then we must not be surprised that we are confronted daily with violence and war. If we do not understand that violence is violence and war is war (and it doesn’t matter who perpetrates the violence and war for what end) then we will continue to have war and rumours of war.

So we need to become much more active in challenging the use of military language, the militarisation or our society, the effective glorification of violence in the media by hyped up reporting of atrocities and neglect of the reality for the victims.

We must also continue to work on the root causes of violence and of unrest. We have much to do.

 

U is for … Unity

‘The unity we seek depends on the willingness of us all to seek the truth in each other’s utterances; on our being open to persuasion; and in the last resort on a willingness to recognise and accept the sense of the meeting as recorded in the minute, knowing that our dissenting views have been heard and considered. We do not vote in our meetings, because we believe that this would emphasise the divisions between differing views and inhibit the process of seeking to know the will of God. We must recognise, however, that a minority view may well continue to exist. When we unite with a minute offered by our clerk, we express, not a sudden agreement of everyone present with the prevailing view, but rather a confidence in our tried and tested way of seeking to recognise God’s will. We act as a community, whose members love and trust each other. We should be reluctant to prevent the acceptance of a minute which the general body of Friends present feels to be right.’

‘As a worshipping community, particularly in our local and area meetings, we have a continuing responsibility to nurture the soil in which unity may be found.’

‘In a meeting rightly held a new way may be discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed. This is an experience of creative insight, leading to a sense of the meeting which a clerk is often led in a remarkable way to record. Those who have shared this experience will not doubt its reality and the certainty it brings of the immediate rightness of the way for the meeting to take.’

Britain YM, Quaker Faith & Practice, 3.06

Gosh, I seem to have forgotten ‘U’ – so this comes a little out of sequence. It just goes to show, we can all make mistakes, we can all forget stuff and we can all make amends.

So, Unity, with a capital U; I was thinking about what is unique (there’s another ‘u’) about Quakers this morning in Meeting. And it’s really quite difficult. In my last post on values this was hinted at. Are there any values, which we can claim to be uniquely ‘Quaker’?

And then it struck me that our belief that making decisions based on unity might very well be unique. Essentially, we look at issues not from the point of view of ‘I want to get my way’, or ‘you are wrong, unless you agree with me’; or indeed ‘I know it all and therefore I am right’. None of these sentiments, which are all too common elsewhere in society (including groups I belong to outside of Friends), have any place in a Quaker Meeting.

In Meeting for Worship, we don’t have one person ordained to tell us what to think; everyone’s contribution is valued for what it is; we accept that sometimes it’s not meant for us personally and we just let it be. What we don’t do is sit there are argue with it, either quietly in our own minds or in words expressed in the hearing of everyone else.

In Meeting for Business, we don’t start from the premise that there is a right and a wrong answer and that some of the people present (me, people I like) know the right answer and everyone else doesn’t.

We don’t come in to the Meeting for Business knowing exactly the outcome we want from any of the items on the agenda; what we do know is that we want an outcome that the Meeting as a whole can live with and that makes sense at this time.

I have had the experience of coming to a Meeting for Business thinking that I knew the right answer to a particular item and coming out of it with a completely different decision having been made that I could fully unite with.

It’s not easy to make this work; one thing that helps is to arrange the room such a way that no-one is seen as more important than anyone else. Yes, the Clerk will have a table; but that’s not a pulpit, it’s a surface to put papers on and to write minutes on.

clip_image002_2_1

It seems to me that this ability to approach often difficult decisions with an open mind and with a firm belief that an open mind (well informed in terms of relevant facts, mind you!) is a better starting point for reaching a good decision. A decision that can stand for now; a decision that can change in due course if necessary; a decision that is right for the Meeting as a whole.

And if I am right to think that this is fairly unique (not just among faith communities but in wider society too) then this is something we must cherish, practice and offer to the wider world.

V is for … Values

Recently, at a board meeting of a small Quaker organisation the one board member who isn’t a Quaker asked us: ‘So what are Quaker values’? Not an unreasonable question as we had been going on about the unique selling point of the service we provide being ‘the Quaker values’.

The immediate answer he got from one of our number was: read Advices and Queries. I didn’t really think that was a sufficient answer but couldn’t come up with anything quick and straightforward either.

I googled the Quaker Social Action publication ‘The Q-BIT at the Heart of a Quaker led organisation

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I sent him a copy by e-mail and I referred him to page 24 (of the pdf) where in a nice and accessible box you can find the following:

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Of course, the issue with any such list – just as much with a list of our Testimonies which are often used in such discussions – is this: (a) do we live up to these values? And (b) are they unique to Quakers?

Why do these two questions matter? They both matter because they are about authenticity and about identity.

Of course, we don’t always live up to all of these. We’re not perfect and we don’t claim to be perfect. It’s more important to own them and to keep trying. And of course, in theory we do. But in practice, certainly in Britain in Europe more broadly, we don’t have enough diversity within our group to be able to hear all voices and views, for example.

But the question of uniqueness is probably the more controversial. The issue here is that we claim values that others would also claim and maybe they interpret them differently but is it right for us to claim them as ‘Quaker’ values.

It puts me in mind of the discussions in the political sphere of ‘British’ values, many of which are far more universal than that.

So where does that leave us?

The one thing we do seem to have in common and seem to have uniquely in common is our worship based on silence; our willingness to shut down the noise which we are otherwise constantly confronted with; the willingness to accept that silence – as much in a group as on our own – can be uncomfortable because it tends to bring out all sorts of thoughts that we normally try not to allow any space for. It is a silence that makes space for the crucial question: what is really important? What is it that really matters? What do I want to spend my time, energy and money on?

One of the really important issues is that of equality – or to put it into political terms – the growing inequality, which our society is blighted with. I know that Friends are doing work on this; I know there will be some concentrated effort around this over the next few months. But the question for each of us individually and for our Meetings is this: given that most of us are among the better off – though not among the 1% – what can we actually do practically that will make us ‘patterns and examples’; i.e. the people who are the change we want to see.

One key issue is housing inequality. Can we find a way of demonstrating what that would look like without making ourselves homeless and without creating a massive managerial and administrative burden for someone?

Just a thought and a question! If you have ideas of how to bring that about, please let me/us know.

T is for … Testimony against Times and Seasons

‘Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.’ Janet Scott, Quaker Faith and Practice 27.42 – excerpt

It’s been the sort of time when this testimony (and it’s non-observance) has been high on my radar. Indeed, I feel very strongly right now that we should reclaim it in some way.

I was looking around the Internet for some comments on this Testimony and came across this one: I suppose I mark Christmas because it’s there, and not to do so is a distinctive statement in itself – rather like wearing C17 “plain” dress would be. This comes from a website called Quakerinfo.com and I think it is really telling.

Do we – individually or collectively eschew making distinctive statements about things we are strongly committed to? And/or: is our testimony against times and seasons something we should be strongly committed to?

I don’t have the knowledge to argue the origins of this Testimony with any degree of certainty – no doubt some of you who read this may be able and willing to chip in on that.

But as I understand it, the crux is this: we don’t believe that some days are more holy or more sacred than others because all days are holy or sacred. And therefore, to single out some days in the way they are in the Christian calendar would be to denigrate all the others.

I’m not sure I live up to that understanding myself in any meaningful way although I do try to do something worthwhile with each day. What I do know is that I am completely fed up with the way ‘special days’ are commercialised and abused by industry to make them profit. This year has been almost worse than previous years because we have now had Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and various other shopping opportunities thrust upon us in addition to the Christmas mayhem. People are encouraged – not to say dragooned – into spending money on stuff they (and the people they give it to) don’t want and don’t need. The success of Christmas is measured in sales turnover of the big high street chains.

This is so far from any possible meaning of the Christmas story that all I can do is turn away from it and hibernate. On the whole, that’s more or less what we did this year. A few Christmas cards, a few more Christmas e-mails – and I was careful to make them as non-saccharin and as non-pseudo religious as possible – and a nice meal on the day. And that was it.

But you can’t escape the rigmarole; you can’t escape the endless onslaught of ‘Christmas’ adverts.

But our Meeting had its traditional Christmas celebration; and we sang carols – well, I didn’t join in but I was there. And that’s when I wondered whether we are actually making enough of a statement.

We gathered on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas – so at least we weren’t saying this has to be on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve; we spent, collectively, a good deal of money on food and drink – much more than necessary; we collected a reasonable sum for a local homeless charity (we could have double that if we had not spent anything on food, I’d say).

And we sang a number of ‘well-loved’ carols. And when you actually look at the words I find it really hard to believe that we could seriously be saying any of this and mean it; but it seems perfectly possible to sing it.

Each year, I think: I’ll re-write the words so that we can actually mean them; and then I don’t because other stuff intervenes.

But here’s one of the ones we were singing (I think) and I thought I would at least try a bit of a commentary:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed

So, we’re celebrating the fact that for reasons of government interference in people’s lives a family with a new-born infant is homeless?

The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

Newborn, homeless, probably cold: we describe this as ‘His sweet head’; and why ‘little Lord’? It conjures up an image of a life of privilege. But it could not have been further from any kind of truth – and not so far from the reality of Palestinian children today: children who grow up under occupation and who find themselves homeless because their parents have been told to leave their homes for arbitrary reasons.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,

Not terribly likely that stars do anything remotely related to what we think of as looking.

The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

You’d hope that he was asleep; but chances are he was waking up regularly and crying (see below).

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes

We would rightly be horrified to think of a newborn and his mother (who, after all, has just given birth) being accommodated in such conditions – from a health and safety and hygiene point of view if nothing else. So why are we singing about this as if it’s worthy of rejoicing?

But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.

See above

I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.

So now he’s in the sky and we’re asking him to look down on us from there – presumably to look after us and care for us; but what are we doing about the homeless children in our society? And wouldn’t we be better occupied with them?

And so on and so forth. Frankly, I can’t bear to go on because the song is so superficial and so saccharine.

So maybe 2015 could be the year when we reclaim our authentic voice that says it how it is: Christmas and other so-called Christina holy days have been so utterly debased by the commercialization that surrounds them that the only response is to ignore them completely and to come up with another way of doing something meaningful: every day.

And maybe that means we do need to – at least metaphorically don plain dress and bonnets and be visible as Quakers in a world that needs some plain speaking.