Friday, 29 January 2010


Friendship and the withholding of favour.

Friendship and the withholding of favour.

I read a lovely blog post recently, clearly written by someone who actually knows something about something. The language was beautiful, calm, measured, thoughtful. And it was about friendship. About the danger of defining in the narrow terms of what you get out of it. It is something I have been thinking about a lot. For ten years, my husband and I lived in a state where we really made few demands of each other. We were happy rubbing along, living, loving, sharing because of mutual interest and care. It was not always as perfect as the picture I paint may appear, but it was pretty good. We could respond to each others needs with no calculation, content that any reciprocity would flow naturally from our love. But events have somewhat sharpened that awareness of payback.

Cut to the present day.

"Will I do bath?"

"OK, I'll do bed."

"No, no, you did it last night..."

"OK, thanks love." Score. Some adjustment of the accounts will be required but for the moment this represents a win.

Our daughter, who is perfect, adorable and, we think, pretty sharp for two and a quarter, looks from one of us to the other. Our bargaining is only human, I feel. But she's going to get some of this pretty soon, right? That in some way, doing bedtime is a chore. But that is so untrue! Bathtime is splashy fun, and bedtime, story reading, cuddles on the chair in the dark, gazing at the luminous constellations on the ceiling, singing songs, which she insists upon, is a joy.

Its just that you get so tired after a day at work. Any other time is fine, but those few hours, you just want to slump on the sofa until you can recover a little. I remember back in the pre-kid days, saying to young parents of my acquaintance that I did't know how they found the energy to keep up with their kids. They would look at me as if I were a bit odd, and say something along the lines of, well, you just do, because you have to. And it's absolutely true. The burden of parenting is shared by us upright monkeys, and to a greater degree in modern families, thank goodness. God know how single parents manage.

However, the net effect is to reduce the night time routine to a series of bargaining chips, and our relationship to one defined by reciprocity. This is not the way I want to approach any part of my life, or my daughter's formative years.

I'm not overly worried. This is not the sum of us, and simply by remembering why we do these thing, out of love, the humanity can be injected back into the transactions. And when you are too dog tired to do that, knowing that you do it out of love is sometimes enough.

But it did get me thinking about relationships, in particular about the sort of relationship where the other party can't really give you a great deal back. I had thought about joining a prison penpal scheme. It seems like a humanistic thing to do. Prisoners can often be abandoned on incarceration by friends and family, adding to their isolation from society. Surely a bad thing, if we are serious about rehabilitation. But they are also criminals. I'm not, one might think, going to have a great deal in common with them, me being a (reasonably) law abiding, middle class person. This is exactly the sort of relationship, thinks our blogger, where we strip away all that reciprocity crap, and just get down to a relationship based on care.

Only that is bollocks, on a number of fronts.

Firstly, there is the assumption that I am going to get nothing out of it, to learn nothing, that I will be there, pedagocically handing out scraps of well worn 'normal' experience of the law abiding outside, attempting to steer my new acquaintance away from the rocky shoals of reoffending to the calm sandy beaches of a decent, law abiding existence. What arrogant rubbish, as another blog that I read has illustrated to me. Whatever the law may define them as, there is more going on than just the product of a crime. There is a human.

Then there is the obvious feel good factor from doing a Good Thing. Not to be underestimated in this minefield of reciprocity. I do get something out of it, and If I unconsciously define the experience in those terms, then as soon as I don't think I am getting that any more, my motivation is gone.

And perhaps worst of all is the power dynamic. Now powerplays could be initiated from either end, with a smart crook attempting to hoodwink the unsuspecting dupe that they are alright when they are a baddun, but there is no getting away from the fact that I hold much of the power. So there I am, handing down my gems of wisdom, when I get a letter I don't like. I can write of my displeasure, or disagreement. I can go so far as to withhold my favour, by not writing. By stating that I am withdrawing from the relationship. I have seen this happen, most often on blogs. At that point a relationship based on reciprocity become one based on exploitation. Because unlike my husband and I at our very reciprocating worst, there is no real balance here. One party is tremendously disadvantaged compared to the other, in term of the control they have over the relationship. I think this is possibly descriptive of the entire Criminal Justice system we have saddled ourselves with. I just don't believe that no-one in the Prison service takes advantage of this enormous power disparity.

Anyway, I hope that If I do get round to writing to someone in prison, I remember that I don't have to constantly pass judgements on them. That already happened, they are in prison. Perhaps I will simply try to be a human, to give a little bit, and if I get something back, to be grateful without defining the relationship in those terms. And perhaps I will extend the same courtesy to my friends, my husband, and my wonderful baby girl.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Free Prisoner Ben.

A very good friend has set up this facebook site. Please, please look and join.

At the age of 14 Ben Gunn killed his friend after an argument. Both boys came from troubled backgrounds and were in care at the time. He was given a life sentence "at Her Majesty's Pleasure" with a tariff (minimum term) of ten years. The sentence reflected his age and the remorse he had shown. Because of his peaceful fight against abuses of power in the the prison service, and despite no further acts of violence, he is still incarcerated: Ben will be 45 this year.

Please join the campaign to have Ben released by joining our Facebook page using the button on the top right of this page.

20 years after the judge's 'tariff' expired, Ben is still in prison. To find out why, we must examine the prison service's requirement that inmates show 'compliance' to prison rules before they can be released.The logic goes that, a person who does not follow prison rules is unlikely to to follow the laws on the outside. On the surface, this is a sensible notion, however, the rules are often arcane and illogical and those who enforce them often abuse their power. Not suprisingly, some prisoners challenge both the rules and the abusers; Ben is such a person.

Throughout his long internment, Ben has consistently challenged the abuses of power he has seen; he has done so in a peaceful and highly articulate manner. 15 years into his sentence, The Parole Board recommended he be moved to an open prison (the first stage in the release process). The then home secretary refused to accept the recommendation. Over the next ten years, The Parole Board recommended open conditions four times, but Ben remained in a closed prison. Finally, in 2005, Ben made it to an open jail. Sadly, a combination of external circumstances, bad timing and Ben's refusal to conform to senseless rules, saw him returned to a closed prison, Shepton Mallet, where he remains to this day. Here is the whole story of Ben's imprisonment in his own words.

Ben's barrister, Flo Krause, has this to say about him:

There is NOTHING in any of his papers which remotely indicates that Ben would pose a risk to the public if released; but Ben is a peaceful activist. He is a fighter and a subversive thinker. He would not hurt anyone (and as far as I can ascertain, this has been the position for over 20 years) but he will speak out and refuse to be silenced. This is seen as unacceptable and the system punishes him.

For Flo's full testimonial please see the FAQs.

Ben has sought to empower himself through education and is currently engaged in research towards a PhD in Human Needs Theory in Prison Conflicts. We are shocked and appalled by the continued imprisonment- at huge cost to taxpayers - of a man who has repeatedly shown himself to have repaid his debt to society and to be ready to take an active and valuable role on the outside. We are not alone; Lord Ramsbotham (former Chief Inspector of Prisons) has said keeping Ben inside serves no purpose and the continued imprisonment of him and others like him contributes to prison overcrowding, while Eric Allison (The Guardian's prison correspondent) compared Ben's treatment to that of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson who were released after serving only 8 years.

We believe that the time has come for Ben to be released. Not just sent to open prison for another two years, as is the unnecessary standard, but released into the care of his Circle of Support and Accountability who are ready and waiting to help him adjust to his new life. The Circle of Support (CoS) protocol was imported from Canada where is was developed in response to high risk sex offenders being released without supervision. Each Circle comprises volunteers from the local community, plus the ex con (the 'core member’). The central idea is that the Circle protects the community from the ex con, whilst protecting the ex con from the community. Broad, yet very tailored, support is given to the ex con in order that he can safely reintegrate into the community. The Circle also challenges the ex con should he begin to slip in any way. Hence 'support’ and 'accountability'. For more information please see the FAQs.

It has been shown on countless occasions that well known prisoners with the weight of public opinion behind them are released more quickly. Please join the likes of Lord Ramsbotham and Eric Allison in calling for not only Ben's release but an investigation into the scores of other prisoners kept inside long after the expiration of their tariffs and at no benefit to the themselves or to our society.

Become a fan of this page today and spread the word to show those in power that it is time to FREE PRISONER BEN.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Ignorant thinking...

This is something I wrote at 2am the other night. It's satire, OK?

And in the Sunday Times some idiot said this, more or less: I'm just a normal guy, same as all of you, strike a light, love a duck, and I don't know about you I'm really struggling with the 4 wheel drive option on my Range Rover in this terrible weather. And we had to let go of the boy that collects the coal from the cellar, because the Government say its illegal to employ minors! Since when, I ask you? Damn their eyes, do they know how difficult it is to get into the cellar if you are over 4 feet tall? If we don't sort something out soon we shall freeze to death. I shall have to employ midgets from now on.

Speaking of the weather, clearly all this cold means Global Warming is complete tosh. I said so to the little woman and she flinched and said yes dear, and then got on with defrosting the piggie's water trough by breathing heavily on it.

And well she might agree with me. I was right about something else once, so I must be right about this. And because it's cold right now, wind farms don't work...ever. So what have you got to say about that then? I thought not....

Anyway, everyone knows those Climate scientists at UEA are a bunch of politically motivated shysters and it's about time someone brought them up again in a thinly disguised attempt to remind everyone that in some vague way those guys are bad, but without referring to exactly the same quotes that everyone else was because they are old and possibly discredited as a means of tarnishing the climate scientists' names, but you get what I'm about, right?

Of course you do. Because you're not idiots. You see through all this political posturing and technobabble. You, like me, call a spade a spade, and you don't listen to their nonsense. I mean the Tories once did a Stupid Thing, which, if they had asked me, I could have warned them about, but that was a generation ago, and surely they have learned from their mistakes since then, and besides, everything since then has been Labour's fault, hasn't it? Well, hasn't it?? But doesn't that young rogue Cameron look terribly good, I mean serious in those election posters. But what I really think is that they are all as bad as each other and we're not buying your nonsense, Mr Politician, Mr Scientist. We are free thinking Brits, every man jack of us. And good thing too.

Anyway after writing this in the toilet in five minutes flat, I showed it to the little woman. "Do you think the Times will print this? It really is the most ill thought out tosh."

"Don't worry dear." she said. "All the other editorial pieces this Sunday are weakly written mealy mouthed twaddle by right wing apologists who are still trying to convince themselves that they are good people. At least you don't bother with the pretence."

I do love her, silly old bat.

And on a completely separate and unrelated note, I read this, and it made me think of this. This certainly wasn't the article I was referring to above.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Everyone needs a little Kay Nielsen in their life...

A chance conversation brought back a memory from childhood. Get a hold of East of the Sun and West of the Moon, illustrated by Danish artist Kay Nielsen if you can, or just a have a look for some of his illustrations.


Below is something I wrote. Hope you like it. Sort of near future setting. Criticism very, very welcome.


"Disgusting." says Jamie.

"Can you believe this? Fucking lowlife scum." says Grace, with some heat. She quickly covers her mouth with her hand, casts a guilty glance in the baby's direction.

"Some people do, more's the pity." responds Jamie gravely. "It's the idea that they are willing to mess with millions of people's lives for a game. I just don't understand the mentality. As it is, I understand that the FO down at Whitehall are having to smooth things out with the Chinese, reassure them that we know its rubbish and that we are doing everything we can to counter it and catch these guys. It's like the old MMR thing, only deliberately manufactured for someone's idle amusement."

"I just feel for all the decent journalists who've been suckered into engaging with it. You have to be so careful these days." It is important for Grace, identifying with journalists, now she can no longer really claim to be one. And it is nice for her when Jamie pops over the bridge from Edinburgh, fresh from a debate or a select committee, or a date with a really hot guy. Its makes her feel as if motherhood hasn't taken her out of the loop completely.

The report they are watching elaborates on how these fucking disgusting lowlife scum, players of an exceedingly tasteless online game call Hakk, release manufactured news stories into the blogsphere via one or a number of faked news blogs. The supposed authors of these blogs turn out, on examination, to be fictitious individuals, sockpuppets lovingly crafted by the actual author, the Hakk player. There are programs which can generate entire posts given enough sources and an arbitrarily chosen political stance. The Hakk players are then given points for the number of comments, links to their blog and general controversy that the story generates. The more controversy, the more points you get. And this story, that the vaccine for the new SARs strain that the Chinese had developed and were giving out for free was actually designed to cause brain damage in non-Chinese recipients, was very, very controversial. It shouldn't have been, of course. It should be been laughed of the face of the blogsphere. But the methods used by the Hakk players are incredibly sophisticated, and the data that is usually presented with the claims is so hard to disprove, due in the main to its sheer volume. And there is so much trash kicking about on the web, it is almost impossible to be discerning. If something gets picked up, it usually starts a snowball effect, until some people believe it just because it is popular.

"Do the police stand any chance of catching these guys?" says Grace.

Jamie frowns. "Thing is, they could be anywhere in the world. And they are very good at covering their tracks. Hijack other people's IP addresses, use programmes which turn PCs into zombie terminals. But the police are using every tool in the box. They want a scalp, and when they catch one of these bastards, they're going to throw the anti-terror book at them."

Al is on the sofa pretending to update his profile on his palmhub, earwigging on his wife and cousin while resting a foot on the hind quarters of Davie's hobby horse, absently rocking him to and fro. He thinks about the contents of his other palmhub, the one he pick up second hand about three years ago, and which is currently buried at the bottom of his patrol pack. The one which had come with the Hakk delux pack on it. The full suite, including Gonzo, Tabloid and Political Hakk, not to mention the lower brow first person shooter, Hakk and Slash, in which your journalist hunts and is hunted by Special Forces assassins determined to silence him or her. He appreciated that slight irony. He had been curious, and had quickly become hooked, bored by endless variants on the video game theme of killing people, which, in truth, was a bit like the day job. And it was educational. You couldn't be a really good Hakk player unless you kept up with the news, with the who's who of politics, with the issues of the moment. In a way, he blames Jamie. It was hanging around with him that got Al interested in that stuff, after all.

In addition to the usual accessories, trend analysis programmes, data miners and the like, he has a few of the less kosher add ons, including trendbender, which massages the blips in data into trends, blogblagger and blogjacker, datafaker, Fakebook and perhaps the most contentious of his setup, IPjacker. He has been quietly building his latest sockpuppet for six months. Bonnie is a middle American republican housemom stranded in Godless, lefty Vermont. She even has a Facebook page, complete with photos mined from the deep history of the net and tweaked a bit to bring them up to date. He had upped her activity recently, posting a few off the wall stories about liberal conspiracies, the encroaching hordes of Chinese socialists buying up land in Alaska and how the musical 'Cats' was an attempt by lefties to turn your kids into gay atheists. They had garnered Bonnie quite a following, not to mention a few detractors.

Among Bonnie's choicest quote were "All I have to say is you liberal sinners better watch out because the Rapture is coming." and "They want to destroy our traditional values and way of life and turn everyone gay." But the best was to come. Bonnie had been going to uncover a plot to remove thousands of good republican voters from the Vermont electorate by making everyone sit a test of basic political and constitutional understanding. Of course those over-educated Democrats had skewed the test to ensure that it would disproportionately disqualify poor, hard-working Republicans who didn't have a liberal-arts degree. There is supporting documentation and everything. He is pretty sure it will create a modest storm, particularly in the extreme wing nut states. If he had got a mention on Fox News, he would probably have had enough points to knock the guy who came up with the SARS vaccine as Tool of Genocide story off the top spot, even though the story wasn't so global. And when 'Bonnie' was exposed as a sockpuppet, the wing nuts would be left with a gallon of egg on their faces. In comparison with the SARs guy, his effort really isn't so ammoral, he feels. He is holding up a mirror, really. If people can't see that it is all nonsense, surely that is their fault? Whereas the SARs story, that is... Well, it is incredible. A part of him is filled with admiration, that someone could go quite so far, push the thing to the very limits of taste and legality. And beyond.

Thinking about it, it is perhaps irresponsible, which is perhaps why he has been sitting on his story so long. It would represent both his greatest Hakk coup, and in all likelihood, his swansong as a Hakk player, as he can't really be doing this sort of thing any more. He hasn't got the time since Davie was born, and now that he has his commission his days no longer contain endless hours of hanging around on base waiting for something to happen. He has his career to progress. If it gets out that he plays, he's for the high jump, good and proper, probably get a court marshal and a dishonourable discharge, not to mention the contents of the aforementioned anti-terror book. Besides, it would look terrible for Jamie. And Grace, come to think of it. No, it really has gone too far. He'll have to can it. Shame really. He had grown quite fond of Bonnie.


I can't think that you would but if you want to use any of the above, please link here or ask me.. thanks, Babs

Thursday, 7 January 2010


I may be riffing on this theme, photographically, for a while.

Also, you must have seen this , right?


I used to think, before I had any, that experience acted in some way to distill the spirit, removing what was extraneous and concentrating that which was desirable. Life as a filtration exercise.

As time passed, as experience accumulated, some achievements, some disappointments, I started to rethink this theory. In particular those experiences which result in my giving up some part of myself, surrendering a cherished ideal to pragmatism, led me to think of it more as a process of petrification of the spirit. Something is crushed flat under the weight of reality. But it does not disappear entirely. Instead it is sedimented into a layer of disappointment and regret at having let yourself down. Or that is what it feels like the first few times.

But even that stage barely lasts. Year upon year, these layers are laid down, and not all of them are bitter. Instead, they are simply what we are able to hold onto. So many memories to cling to, eventually it becomes impractical, so we keep what we can. These layers of compacted experience become metamorphosed, indistinguishable from the self. We look at ourselves and we say, look at all the layers I have. What an accomplished person I must be, to have build myself up like some exposed cliff face on the Grand Canyon. We look at the bigger picture and forget to examine each layer again. Easier perhaps than looking back.

And then something happens, some new experience, some set of circumstances we have not been exposed to before or in apparent geological ages and these layers fan open like the pages of a book, and we read upon them the stuff we are made of, wondering that these words were always a part of us, even when we had felt that any sense of who we once were was lost.

Now lets see if I can act on this feeling ;)