Category Archives: The lives of others

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.


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.


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

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.


Q is for … QC the Quaker Cat and other furry Friends

I nearly missed Q; I was already working on R and suddenly remembered Q; what a thing to forget – especially as a Quaker.

And since I have a cat called QC (for Quaker Cat) who has lived with us since 2004 and has experienced an intensive Quaker environment in Brussels, I thought I should focus on her for this post.

By her mere presence in the house (she never left the flat except in her basket on the way to the vet, to the cattery or to come with us to the UK when we moved back) she kept mice at bay – totally non-violently; just sitting quietly exuding cat-ness.

So that made me think about what our furry friends tell us about life and how to live it.

They are lovely, and life wouldn’t be the same without them. Here’s my gallery of furry Friends:

There aren’t any pictures of the cat we had when I was a kid. She was called Peter; we thought she was a boy cat. And then she had kittens (we did too, when we realised). I don’t know what happened to most of the kittens; we kept one. But none of the photos show her or Oscar, her son; nor can I remember what eventually became of them.

Bessie for Q blog

Our first dog was called Bessie; she was a boxer and was 8 weeks old when she came to live with us. I was 6 years old and there’s no question but that Bessie had the upper hand. When I was allowed to take her for a walk by myself, she managed to pull me over and drag me behind her all the way home. It was a bit scary; but I had been told never to let her go. We went right across at least two roads. But then, the traffic wasn’t so much of an issue. But it taught me lots about taking responsibility – whatever the price; and about assessing relative strength. It only happened once; after that, I practiced handling her and the lead better and eventually, we were balanced in our strength – assisted by th fact that she began to look to me (and other humans) for instructions. That’s what dogs do. They understand that they’re not in charge and they like it that way.

Bessie died when she was maybe 12 or 13; we got another boxer; she was called Baska; I don’t have a decent picture of her – this all predates digital photography and the someone blurry images don’t make a good transition ot the screen. She was about a year old and had been living in a brewery where the workers had mistreated her. The guy who ran the brewery was only too pleased to give her to us. She was a lovely dog; but for the rest of her life – if you tried to offer her food from your hand – she would show signs of distress, a clear sign that being offered food in this way was connected to her mistreatment. She never grew out of this – in all the years we had her. She made it to around 13, too. So the trauma she had experienced in the first year of her life affected her – in her terms – forever. Nothing can ever replace the trust developed early on; and nothing can make up for trust broken.

When Bessie died, I had moved away from ‘home’ and so her replacement, a cat named ‘Floh’ (German for ‘flea’ although I’m sure she was completely clear of any such critters) was not my furry friend, though she was nice enough when I was there.

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I acquired two dogs, Holly and Fly, in so many ways a key part of my life. First came Fly; she came to us when she was far too young (5 weeks) and was brought up by the cat that had temporarily adopted us. We called her Meg but I’m sure she had a perfectly good home somewhere in the neighbourhood where she was called something else. That’s one of the things cats do; they leave home if they don’t like it and they go elsewhere; but often, they go back often enough to make their ‘owners’ (as we would think of ourselves; or ‘staff’ as they see us) think they are still there and need feeding.

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So Meg took Fly in hand and taught her all sorts of things; lying on the back of the sofa (which was fine until Fly grew into a fully grown dog and kept falling off; but she never stopped trying to do it). She didn’t teach her to bark; and when Fly barked for the first time ever, she nearly jumped out of her skin with fright. She got over that, quickly, and then spent the rest of her life announcing that she was there and required attention. That was one of her most ‘catty’ traits.

Holly joined the household as a friend for Fly; and it worked; the two of them got on really well once Holly had established that between the two of them, she was in charge.

They coped with all sorts of life changes; they coped with being left all day at times; they coped with being put in a pet hotel when we went on holiday; and they really never complained. Every time I got home, there they were, excited to see me, keen to go for their walk, happy to be told what to do. Totally loyal; no side to them.

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When we moved to Brussels, a dog wasn’t an option; I took one look at the house, the road, the thin windows, and decided: this is not for a dog – not anyway one that I would have considered ‘dog sized’.

For Chrismas Letter copy

We acquired a cat; we called her QC (Quaker Cat); I think she sort of realised that she was not just a cat, but also standing in for the dog we couldn’t have. So when we come in she stands by the door to greet us; though she doesn’t bark.

But is also very much a cat; independently minded, in search of somewhere to hide. Do cats have a sense of humour? You bet. She knows we’re looking for her, but she hides somewhere so quietly and so still that you can’t see or hear her at all. Does she have moods? Absolutely. She can make a face like a wet Wednesday any time.

She knows we don’t have a clue; she also knows where the food comes from. So she accommodates our wish to cuddle her because that’s the price tag for her expensive favourite foods.

I don’t like to anthropomorphise my furry friends; I take them as they are: dogs/cats that are different from humans; what’s amazing is: they have learned to get on with us; they have found ways of making us useful to them. They have worked out that this requires compromise. They broadly know what is expected of them and if that’s communicated clearly, they take that on board. We could learn a lot from them.

Blissfully unaware?