Friday, 10 November 2017

Spare the Rod

When I moved to Scotland seventeen years ago I found myself (I’ll leave out the reason) talking to church councils about the smacking ban. That I had moved to a country which had passed a law against smacking children seemed something to celebrate... until I noticed the ‘small-print.’ It was a ban of smacking children with an implement.
Talk about half-measures! Finally, the law has caught up with itself and realised that smacking in any form should be made illegal. And yet some people still believe it is their ‘right’ to chastise a child with violence. Does that word jar? Well, I’m afraid that is what hitting is, whether with an implement or a bare hand.
Anyone who says to me, “I was beaten when I was a kid – never did me no harm” is lying, and not just from a grammatical stance. Sure, people of my generation didn’t endure beatings like those of the past. In the novel His Bloody Project Graeme Macrae Burnet describes beating and bullying among his fictional crofters’ community as a way of life – although it results perhaps in the brutal incident of the novel’s title.
The implements used over history present a barrage of instruments of torture. In my father’s school days, the ‘tawse’ – a leather strap with three cut strips into the end – was common. Elsewhere, adults deployed birch twigs, a wooden paddle, a willow switch, a rattan cane, ruler, yard-stick, walking stick, wooden spoon, or ‘slipper’ (slippering being euphemistic since being slapped with a rubber plimsoll would smart far more than being tickled with a slipper) and probably other unmentionable items.
With regards to hitting other people, there have been many anomalies over the years, but the fact that adults aren’t allowed to hit each other, yet can hit a small, defenceless person supposedly in their care seems preposterous. That smacking is carried out as a punishment is absurd. It is – literally – a vicious circle.
Violence creates violence. Smacking a child doesn’t tell them what they’ve done wrong; it just tells themthat they are wrong. There is no correlation between their behaviour and the punishment: it makes no sense. The threat of being smacked creates an irrational fear; it doesn’t alter their behaviour.

And fear is the mother of violence.
The Criminal Justice System put a stop to flogging adults as a form of punishment in 1948, yet teachers were happily thwacking kids for years after that. The first legislative ban of corporal punishment in schools came about in 1987, although private schools were permitted to use it until 1998 – a perverse example of so-called privilege.
Judicial Corporal Punishment continued elsewhere after 1948. In prisons, it wasn’t outlawed (supposedly) until 1967, although I can assure you that this was not an end to it. Corporal punishment, one could say, has its roots in scripture. Proverbs 13, 24 is often quoted by those who advocate the use of such punishments, and serves as justification and efficaciousness for giver and receiver respectively.
For Christ’s sake: ‘the rod’ should not be taken literally. As we all know, using religious texts to justify any behaviour is a tricky game. Using scripture to justify violence... it’s a black and white NO. Don’t go there. But some do go there, and even church leaders fail in their understanding of Christ’s message of ‘peace to all.’
In this BBC article, the only person mentioned defending the practise of smacking was a Free Church of Scotland minister. For fuck’s sake, Reverend: are you missing a theology brain cell? In a sense, we are all missing a trick here. Banning smacking is of little use unless society finds a way to teach adults that violence is not the answer.
The word ‘discipline’ tends to be synonymous with restraint and control. In theology, the term should be thought of as primarily pedagogic, not negative and repressive. It’s easy to see the link to the word ‘disciple’ which means ‘follower.’ For Christians, discipline should be about showing by good example. Sadly, often it is not.
As we enter the season of Remembrance, we’ll endure the nonsense of observing minutes of silence remembering those killed in war, yet forgetting that those who died ‘in service’ may well have killed others also. The Armed Forces are so-called because they are ‘armed’ (to kill) using ‘force’ (ie, violence) – it comes with the job.
But preaching the fruits of the Spirit – love, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, self-control, et cetera – comes with the job if you’re a fucking preacher! Sometimes I despair of society, and at other times I can take heart. I’m glad that, albeit seventeen years later than I thought, Scotland is taking a lead on this. It gives me something to celebrate about staying in this funny, contrary country.
Perhaps – like the smoking ban – the rest of the UK will follow. If not, we could always threaten to send kids to England if they misbehave. For anyone who thinks it’s not my place to bang on about these sort of issues, well I’m sorry: it’s my blog, and I’ll say what I want. And I’ll say what I always say on Remembrance Day:
Today, as always, I refuse to keep silence
’til Church and State renounces violence

Monday, 23 October 2017

This month’s rant: The Edinburgh Question

Some years ago at a party, I got into a strange conversation with one of the guests. He wanted to know which school I went to, and when I refused to tell him, he became extraordinarily vexed. He continued to quiz me, and the more I dug my heels in, the more irate he became. It was actually quite amusing for the other guests, but not for him.
You might be wondering why I didn’t just tell him. In the end, I did, but he was too raging to even hear my reply, and so the whole charade continued. My stubbornness was due to my own question which is, why was he asking? Not so much, why did he need to know, but: why was this a question at all? I’ve since learned that there is something called ‘the Edinburgh question’ and this is what he was asking.
“What School did you go to?”
It’s quite different from ‘where did you go to school,’ in that it is an assumption that you went to a Private School and therefore, there is a pecking order at play. Edinburgh is so full of fee-paying schools it makes you wonder what proportion of its kids attend them, compared with those at ‘normal’ schools.
I could do some research, but frankly, I can’t be bothered. This is rant, not an essay. And because I went to a normal school (a common comprehensive somewhere dull and north of London, if that party-guest is still listening for an answer) I’m obviously not worthy of forming anything more than a common opinion. But this is it...
I abhor private schools. The idea of a separate education for some when we live in a society that has ensured the provision of education for all makes no sense. Paying for something that has already been paid for through the equitable system of taxation is absurd, and must surely detract (financially and philosophically) from all that is sensible about universal opportunity.
Furthermore, opting out of state-education is a double-scam, since private schools enjoy (ie, reap) the benefits of charitable status, to the tune of millions per annum in tax breaks. Class privilege, social segregation, and financial apartheid are subsidised overtly by the state. The Public School system sets up notions of privilege based on money. If you can afford the fees, your children can get something that those who cannot afford it will be denied.
This is not to say that all non-fee-paying schools are rubbish; rather, that in a society that values things entirely on their monetary value, ‘normal’ schools will always seem inferior. Of course we all want the best for our children... yes: we ALL wish for that. Placing people in a superior position won’t necessarily produce good results, yet the assumption that accompanies this heightened position is the distinguishing factor.
A palace, fit for you - but not me

[photo By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,]
It is that those educated privately are worth more. It’s on a par with saying that those who buy a certain cosmetic product (on the basis of vulgar marketing alone) are better people because they are ‘worth’ it. No: they simply ‘bought’ it, while the rest of us got by on blood, sweat, and tears. Or got by on hard work, study, and dedication.
These places are seen as efficient exam-machines, but even when they are not, they confer a sense of sophistication that can make a failure feel they have achieved: status is all they need. When they flunk out of education, mummy-and-daddy can always bank-roll them for a ‘mind-expanding’ gap year, or ask a friend to take them on as an un-paid intern while the parents buy a nice little bedsit in Pimlico. They don’t even need a passport.
As I said, this is only a rant, but I have done some reading on the subject, and can thank Owen Jones for some of his insight (his book The Establishment is a continual go-to for me.) But to return to that angry, ranting party-guest who was so pissed off when I refused to be defined according to my education, I think the overall factor was that he was judging me according to the way I speak.
Yes, I have an English accent which, for someone living in Scotland, immediately suggests that I am ‘educated’ – which implies ‘privately educated’ – especially because my pronunciation is pretty ‘received.’ Or, as some would perceive, ‘posh.’ This is because I trained myself to speak ‘properly’ – that is, with clear tone, good enunciation, and proper support – so that I could sing better.
I honed my vocal skills working on the checkout of a certain famous supermarket, earning money to pay for my Music College education. As I’ve said before on this blog, my voice defines me as a person; it is what I am, and anyone who wants to judge me for it or according to it, or make assumptions when they hear it is a fool. It makes no difference what school you went to or where you went to school: if judgement is your only tool, you are an ignorant prick.
I want to end this rant on a positive note, and can’t decide whether to quote Michael Moore and his findings on the Finnish education system (in Finland, fee-paying schools are almost unheard of, along with homework, and hitting kids – but I’ll come to that next month) or a piss-take of posh people. Actually, I can decide: it’s a no-brainer.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Doors Open Days

Throughout Scotland in September, doors are opened to the public that are mostly shut. In Edinburgh, our ‘Doors Open’ weekend is run by the Cockburn Association, and includes many places of interest from fascinating chapels and churches, private houses of unusual or unique design, museums, mausoleums, towers, tors, and turret windows. (This one is always open, with a free entry.)
It’s a great chance to see all sorts of hidden gems and curiosities, and being the curious type I make the most of this annual opportunity. This year, Doors Open clashes with another annual nosy-neighbour fest. In the row of streets around the corner from why I stay in Edinburgh, there is an unusually dense population of artists who open their doors to the public.
It’s a wonderful event that spreads out into the local bars and shops. Although I don’t live in the ‘Colonies’ – as these streets are so-named – at some point I hope to exhibit some of my work in one of the venues... but not this year, as I’m exhibiting in a private exhibition-party on the other side of the city.
My piece titled 26 Doors Between My House and Yours... fits into this story, as it traces a journey past the Colonies, through the Old Town towards the Southside where my friend lives. This happens to be a few streets away from where the private exhibition is taking place, which is a pleasing tying of threads.
What has been interesting in the year since I worked on this project, taking pictures of twenty-six doors and writing a ‘sestude’ on each, is realising how quickly things change. Doors shut, re-open, names change, people move away, and colours are ephemeral. My photographs, and accompanying sestudes, were mere snapshots, even if they symbolised something deeper, eternal.
One example is the pub, which had shut its door when the eccentric owner sadly died. It was a famously unique drinking hole, well-known for its décor, the dismal selection of beer, and disgustingly smelly toilets. But when ‘The Captain’ passed away, it was feared that this quirky wee joint would be mopped up and gentrified – like certain other establishments on the Royal Mile.
Thankfully, although it isn’t quite the living museum that my sestude celebrates, The Waverley has been given a new lease of life. The owners have attempted to stay true to the style of the old place, while giving the loos a much-needed spruce, and increasing the patronage – perhaps as a result. I hope they ditch the Billy Connelly link as claim to fame: there’s so much more in a name.
from 26 Doors Between My House and Yours...
The Waverley, St Mary’s Street
There is a type of personality
that thinks of itself as unique.
Edinburgh fits this category:
it has the only station in the
world named after a novel.
The Waverley bar is similarly
one of a kind. Behind the
boarded-up windows and
permanently closed door
lies a museum… testament
to this Festival City and
the Old Man’s individuality,
immortalised only in memory.
Over the road from the Waverley pub is the front of a café that changed its name after I published my 26 Doors sequence. Luckily, the door I pictured (in words and image) remains behind the newly-named café. Lost in translation.
Circus Café Garden, Gullan’s Close
Frequently, a door
tells only half the story
Tucked away
behind the hidden
garden of a café,
a yellow sun
smiles down
a winding road…
In the adjacent
section on the wall,
a child strides,
head held high
against the stench
of kitchen bins.
A couple in the garden
hear my camera click.
If I could speak their
tongue, I’d listen in.
Another door on my journey tricked me by changing even before the project was complete. Having remained blank for the sixteen years and hundreds of times I had passed by, when I came to take a photograph of this mysterious location, someone was painting letters above the door. Even so, the language and script retain mystery (for some) and I have yet to discover for myself the truth of the story about this legendary restaurant.
Mystery Location, Abbeyhill
According to Urban Myth,
there lies behind these doors
a secret restaurant.
Nobody knows how to book.
Those who go
are treated appallingly,
but report the food
is of the highest quality.
The customer service
is regarded as part
of the unique experience.
Maybe one evening I’ll treat you
to a meal-for-two.
I’d book a table… but how?
If only I knew.
So doors can change, but the symbolism remains... whether as entrances or exits, barriers, or invitations to places of encounter. My journey became a meditation on doors, on friendship, the imagination, and on truths beyond the physical location that I had – almost – arbitrarily chosen. As with friendship, for every door that closes, another will open... if you let it.
11, St Mary’s Street
We all do it…
Push at doors
for which we have no keys;
make choices where
there’s nothing for us to choose;
hope, expect, or long for welcomes
that are far-from forthcoming;
consider houses homes,
double-lock, bolt up every
door lest we,
becoming vulnerable to burglary,
allow the most intimate part
of our existence to be violated.
Our home?
Or our heart?