Simple Stories of the Insanely Complicated

drone blog picture

“Exactitude is not the truth.”
— Henri Matisse

It’s very tempting to divide life into forces of good and forces of evil. It’s easier to make sense of a world if there are just two fundamental human types: good people and bad. My little girl is 5, and will often ask me when we are watching a film, “Is he a goody, dad? Or a baddy?”

In this fairytale world, the forces of good and bad are wrestling it out through eternity, in a never-ending cycle of precarious victories for the side of the angels. Our need for simple stories to explain the human chaos in the world has even begun to alter how we look at our history; re-examining World War II, and all it’s associated horrors, as a shining example of a narrative that at least made sense. Or, as John Pilger recently put it,

“As Barack Obama ignites his seventh war against the Muslim world since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the orchestrated hysteria and lies make one almost nostalgic for Kissinger’s murderous honesty.”

Western leaders have in recent decades responded to the people’s demand for the truth by inventing simple stories of good and evil to justify their own malefic actions. By doing this, these tales become moral fictions of righteousness prevailing over wickedness; but today, the ramified reality behind this simplified pretence is beginning to tear through the thin fabric of lies, exposing, to anyone who cares to look, the mad, brutal and inhuman truth of modern global politics.


I wonder which simple story best articulates an American president, representing the most powerful, rich and armed democratic nation on earth, settling down each Tuesday morning in his presidential chair, sipping coffee and signing off the weekly ‘kill list‘?

This list of names is the combined US and UK intelligence of the geographical whereabouts of various Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. Commonly these locations are in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of North Pakistan, the stateless Somalia, Yemen and, never to be missed out, Iraq and Afghanistan. These countries are not officially at war with the US, but that equates to very little when placed over today’s reinterpreted and extended definitions of international conflict. These militants, who may or may not have committed a crime, will usually become the targets of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, otherwise known as drones. Flown by remote control from air bases hundreds or thousands of miles away, these lethal toys have become tools for the West to extend the parameters of what’s acceptable in warfare.

And the simple narrative to justify this ‘execution’ by another name? A well used warmonger’s contradiction: defence.

Self-defence, actually. By tracking down and killing men the Obama administration think are senior members of Taliban or al Qaeda groups, and who might, now or in the future, be possibly thinking about plotting a terrorist act on US citizens or soil (and who might not), then you are acting in self-defence, by making a terrorist attack on the US less likely. Nuking the rest of the planet would have a very similar effect.

Here’s a map of Pakistan:


In 2003, US and UK intelligence led NATO into already war-torn Afghanistan, and the increased fighting forced thousands of people, including Taliban members, to spill out into the north-westerly corner of Pakistan, called Waziristan. Afghanistan has been a battleground for long periods of its recent history: British India used it to absorb any “radical” ideology emanating from Russia throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Then in the 1970s, a series of coups drew out the Soviet Union, who invaded in 1979 and stayed there for almost a decade, fighting a brutal proxy-war with the US, who was pouring money and weapons into any organisation that claimed to be Afghan rebels resisting the Soviets. This includes funding an early al-Qaeda.

Pakistan is now home to some 2.7 million Afghan refugees, some registered, but most are illegal. The militarisation of North Waziristan has led to the displacement of 350,000 people, desperately trying to escape the violence of both the Taliban and the US attacks.

This is an excellent interactive archive, which really helps illustrate the increase in drone strikes since 2004, please have a quick look:


Barack Obama has courageously defended US soil (I refuse to use the term ‘homeland’) by authorising over 460 drone strikes, more than any other world leader or former US president. The US military and CIA have on occasion even neglected to communicate with allied nations before launching attacks. It seems to me that the people being targeted can’t reasonably be considered “consistently in the role of conflict”, contravening the international laws set down in the Geneva Convention.

The intelligence that ‘justifies’ a drone strike has often been appallingly inaccurate.  This has lead to the sickening murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, like the convoy of cars that was hit as they made their way to a wedding or a grandmother playing with her two grandchildren on their farmland, and countless other silent tragedies.


drone plane

There is something about the nature of this windowless, metallic vehicle that leaves you cold. They fly slowly, are rigged with camera’s and listening devices, and of course, carry air-to-ground Hellcat missiles. They are quiet and can hover over their targets for hours if necessary before firing, sending back footage to bases in Afghanistan and Las Vegas, Nevada. These bases are also where the pilot remotely flies the drone, and it is this long-distance and risk-free advantage that has compounded the immorality of the program.

According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), strikes in Pakistan alone between 2004 — 2015 number 413 (362 authorised by Obama), and have killed up to 3,492 people. Of these killings, the TBIJ estimated 1,167 were civilians, including 207 children. The CIA and the US military have an insider term for this innocent loss of lives, they call it bug-splat.

Political language may well be a stranger to the truth, but it does tell us a lot about national perspectives. The majority of civilian deaths are denied by the US military and the CIA, despite evidence from witnesses and journalists on the ground, and do not stop Obama’s administration from using terms like ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘precision targeting’ to blind-side the US public.

“Nearly for the past year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, [and] precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop,” said John Brennan, the CIA agent overseeing its covert drone operations. He was giving a public lecture on counter-terrorism at Johns Hopkins University, in June 2011 and his statement, to say the least, was contentious. Between June 10th, 2010 and June 8th, 2011, TBIJ reported drone strikes in Waziristan numbering over 120. Their investigations reported up to 196 civilian killings for this time period, including the murders of 16 children.



Seemingly everything comes back to language. Tall stories, misinformation and the necessary ability to transform your wicked deeds – through pseudo-technological sound bites, into bright, shining paradigms of progression – are modern political essentials.

“Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted lethal action would be the use of conventional military options. As I’ve already said, even small special operations carry enormous risks. Conventional air-power or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, result in large numbers of civilian casualties and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.”

Obama in his ‘Terrorism speech‘ of May 2013, comes at us from a skewed perspective; not as the leader of a country participating in the war of terrorism, but as the body defining its very rules. Technology is advancing faster than international law can be adapted, and in the dangerous space this creates, new archetypes can be set. Stuff you would’ve expected to happen in covert CIA programs, are now played out in broad daylight and are hailed as breakthrough policies that will ‘save’ lives.

“…and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.” This is clearly aimed at IS (or ISIS), but it could be equally true of another group that augmented and strengthened under US military interventions. The ragged followers of Saloth Sar numbered about 4,000 when the US began their bombing campaign of Cambodia. Three years later, when the Generals were satisfied that the whole country was levelled beyond recognition, that number had swollen to an army of 200,000. Both leader and army renamed themselves Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodian genocide


In the UK we don’t bother too much with the fairytale stuff. Here instead, is the continuation of a more traditional method of public misinformation — lies, cover-ups and secretion. The MoD’s role in the drone program is rarely discussed as far as mainstream media are concerned, however, it’s pretty obvious that they are up to their necks in complicity.

Of the 500+ drones now held by the MoD, only around 10 Reapers are armed. British drones have been used predominantly to collect data surveillance intelligence, or at least that is the official line; but in such a secretive and distant campaign, who really knows how much action the Reapers have seen. But even if we stick with the ‘intelligence gathering’ story, by handing that intelligence to the CIA or US military, then the UK government becomes 100% complicit in the ongoing murders/executions/killings, as it is quite obvious what the intelligence is going to be used for.

According to Drone Wars UK, in the five years from 2007 to 2012, Britain spent over £2billion on the purchase and maintenance of its drones. In the meantime, the cuts to UK essential services continue to be torn out of the country in the name of ‘debt recovery’. I guess when you spend that kind of money, you really don’t want to see your new play things gathering dust in a hanger somewhere, like a fleet of classic cars. No, you’d need to use them to justify the price-tag, but at the same time you don’t want too many people knowing that you are using them. Here’s a question to parliament regarding the current usage of RAF drones. Please note the geographical location given for the whereabouts of the UK drones as, “in the Middle East”. That narrows that down, then.


Of course, big corporations couldn’t help but get in on the action. British Telecom (a national treasure in the UK!), agreed a 5 year, £23million contract with the US government to make and sell advanced fibre-optic cable (about 30x faster than their Infinity broadband cables) to the US military, specifically for use in the drone program. BT responded by saying the cable is for general purpose, and see no issue with their deal. But Reprieve, the human rights organisation, has accused BT of “wilful ignorance”, and has demanded that they end their contract with the US Government.


Despite the rather obvious benefit of being absent from the strike site, it seems that drone pilots do not escape the most commonly overlooked of war injuries: mental trauma. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcoholism and drug addiction are the most prevalent syndromes returning soldiers in the US and UK suffer from. Initial indicators from the psychological testing of drone pilots seems to show a strikingly similar pattern.

This problem was compounded by a lack of suitable or enthusiastic pilots, forcing the US military to make changes in its career pathways. Pilots who have found themselves on the drone program have also suffered from a burgeoning stigma within the Air force of being “not real pilots”, or that they are simply “jumped up video gamers’. The number of flights pilots are ordered to make intensified to its peak at the end of last year, pushing the pilots to work 16+ hours shifts, sometimes 6 days a week.

Here’s a rather odd music video I found on the TBIJ website and offers us a tiny glance into the world of a drone pilot. It’s written by the pilots ‘singing’, and you can definitely tell. The dynamic is one of men that have been too long in the company of other men. It’s sort of a protest song, with the pilots explaining through the medium of ‘rap’ how they much preferred to kill by firing missiles at people from a jet, the old fashioned way, rather than this boring drone flying. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for them. Perhaps you do, and maybe for different reasons.

Would you believe, some people living under the persistent threat of a drone strike might even agree with Top Gun 1 & 2, feat. Top Gun 3, there. That is to say, some civilians have actually been reported to say that they would prefer their village to face an air strike from an F16 jet, because at least “the attack ends”.

How must it feel, and what must it do to your psychology, to be under the persistent threat of these glinting, metallic hunters high above? The answer is thankfully beyond me, as it is beyond everyone who lives in the US and in the UK. Our leaders would tell us that the reason we cannot fully sympathise with this kind of fear, is precisely because of their successes in the War on Terror.

Another simple story. It might even be one you believe? Why not? We have to believe in some things. I assume you are comfortable with the price other less fortunate, but no less important, people are forced to pay for our freedom?

The Great British Truncheon (part 1)


“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Growing up in the North of England during the 1970s and 80s seemed a fairly normal existence to me. Playing street-football in the evenings, watching T.I.S.W.A.S on Saturday mornings, and getting through the fights and scrapes of school was a pretty standard week. But behind all of that, a shift was spreading through the psyche of Britain. It emanated from Westminster, where the government was force-marching the country on a long journey right-ward. Songs of ‘personal freedom’, ‘personal wealth’, and ‘privatisation’ were perpetually sung by its leaders, and these catchy individualist tunes were beginning to lodge in the minds of much of the nation.

The council estate in Rotherham where I lived from a baby until 15, was populated with straight-laced, working-class people, tasked mainly with the gruelling labour of cutting coal from the earth, forging steel in the furnaces of British Steel and looking after their family the best they could. There was little crime that I can recall, so a police car parked on the street was rare. Yet the vast majority of these families were almost by nature distrustful of the police, referring to them in bad-news tones. We kids copied and did the same. I still do until I check myself. I don’t think this is unusual of working class communities. I think it’s older than the hills.

Today it’s easy to forget that each of the rights we now take for granted, has had to be fought and won, usually by the working classes, through protest and organised confrontation. British history is spilling over with the blood of up-risers, and at such flashpoints, since the mid 1800s at least, it has been the police who stands protector to the ruling classes, and therefore the opposer of any urgent demand for change from the masses.

In 2012, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission – the body served with investigating complaints brought against the police). It did so in light of the investigative work of a local BBC journalist (click here to watch the documentary) and The Guardian. The charges are some of the worst possible for a police force to have levelled at it and include assault, perverting the course of justice and perjury. The criminal evidence unearthed (that the current South Yorkshire police force must feel substantial enough to effectively ‘turn itself in’) dates back over 30 years to the miner’s strike; specifically, one day in that strike.

On the 18th June 1984, a quiet northern village between Rotherham and Sheffield became the backdrop for the outpouring of violence that must, it seems, accompany any political ‘regime change’.

The strike was in its third month, and had started to gain some positive momentum from national and local papers, as well as increasing public support. Even so, a number of men going to the picket that day found it unusual that the police allowed so many miners to gather together without turning any away. The mass picketing at the coking plant had been going on for four weeks, and police had always tried to break up the number of pickets getting to the site by stopping cars, making arrests and even building road-blocks. But on this day, the police even escorted coaches full of miners off the M1, through the shimmering farmland, to the coking plant at Orgreave.

In South Yorkshire, industry and agriculture mingle together at their edges in acres of beautiful wasteland, meadows of wildflowers and stones. This was predominantly the terrain at Orgreave, the land cut across with winding country roads, and the the flow of the River Rother, towards the Don. As the gates opened to allow in the first truck carrying coal, some of the miner’s, as was routine, jeered and pushed at the police line in a halfhearted attempt to break through the police line and get to the truck. But on that hot day, instead of simply pushing the men back to the picket line as before, the police went berserk.

Within the police squads were British Army soldiers dressed in police uniform, minus the officers’ number badge. These soldiers had no policing training. They had no idea how to even make an arrest. As the violence increased, more and more police/army arrived at the site and were immediately sent into the fray.

orgreave truncheon

Wherever the miners ran, police lay in wait for them, usually on horseback, but sometimes with dogs. Men unaware of the police attack and walking back to the picket with cups of tea were suddenly ambushed by police with truncheons. Near the coking plant, a few lines of workers tried to rally, but were swallowed up by riot police and again the swinging truncheons. Throughout the day, the violence escalated, with with the police continuing it barrage of brutality. Some miners threw what looked like stones, which incurred yet more police battery raids.
By the end of it, men of both ‘sides’ needed medical care. Some miners had suffered broken limbs. The police figures had more officers reported hurt than miners. Ninety-five men were arrested that day, all charged with riot.

Why did this happened? Why did a police force, having sworn an oath to uphold human rights and maintain the peace, on that day throw it under the hooves of its police horses and the boots of its riot police? Well, as always, there’s a bigger picture.

In 1977 the UK police force was having serious problems recruiting and maintaining officers. The Labour government had commissioned a review that concluded the force required a 45% pay rise. Labour and the police force had parted ways when the force had been denied a union and the right to strike in 1919, so there wasn’t a great deal of solidarity between them. Instead of implementing the 45% fully, the government decided to phase in an agreed amount, which didn’t really solve their recruitment problem and did nothing for police/labour relations.

But then in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and one of the first things she did was grant the police the full 45% pay award. Whatever Thatcher was, she was no fool. She knew that in order to change Britain’s direction as much as she intended, she would need the police in her pocket. Five years later, at Orgreave, she got a HUGE return on that investment.

Another thing to know is that in 1972 the miners were involved in another strike, and their success was largely due to a mass picketing campaign at another coking plant – this time at Saltley, near Birmingham. Arthur Scargill, a senior officer of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners at the time, led the rally. It was an amazing union triumph, and perhaps the last great act of workers solidarity in Britain, as thousands of men and women in factories and other workplaces in Birmingham walked out too, most of them joining the other picketing miners at Saltley. Up to 10,000 protestors gathered there by the afternoon. The police could no longer secure the trucks leaving the coking plant and the gates finally shut to the roar of the crowd.

The government was also well aware of the significance of the coking plant, and the union victory it represented, and they were not prepared to see it happen again. The Ridley Report, commissioned by Mrs Thatcher, was an instruction manual on how to break down a strike and dismantle the unity of the working man. A couple of Ridley’s suggestions stand out: “The government should if possible choose the field of battle.”; and “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.”.

It was a revolution-by-proxy, for it paved the way, with the unions castrated, from a shift of a nation of ‘producers’ to ‘consumers’. The full regime change. Uniforms aside, the strike pitted working men against each other. But who could really see that then. It was the short-sharp-shock version of culture change. I hope we all feel it was worth it.

At the time of writing the IPCC has given no new updates on it’s plans to investigate the crimes of 18th June 1984.

Please watch Yvonne Vanson’s brilliant Battle for Orgreave

Wednesday, 12th November, 2014

self imposed draft jpeg

Maybe it was just me, but I never really got the ‘army’ thing.

In the infant school yard, when I was 7 or 8, gangs of lads would roam around in a growing flock chanting, “Anyone! Playinat! ArrrMee!”

I’d sort of half get involved, loitering at the edges of the crowd all busily ordering themselves into two sides. Then suddenly it was war! and everyone just went wild with air-guns (as in air-guitar) and air-grenades, accompanied by larynx snapping sounds of explosions and death gurgles. It’s a bit of a shame really that even by such a tender age I seemed to have developed an self consciousness. I couldn’t quite give myself over to pretence; not for that, at least. Not for ‘army’.

Now, I can look back on the first invasion of Iraq in 1990, and see myself, nineteen and arrogant, watching the hazy, sepia images of buildings exploding on jet targeting systems, feeling nothing but a total disconnection with what I was witnessing. My mind had no genuine understanding that what was taking place on the TV, was doing so in a reality I was part of.

Warfare has settled into every crevice of our society. It is so omnipresent, it has become generally accepted as part of the human condition; a sentiment I refute with every cell in my body. When our politicians speak about ‘progress’, have you ever asked yourself where we are progressing to? And what ever happened to processes prior to conflict? Before we get to a warring stage, shouldn’t all other manner of dealing with the problem be exhausted first? Negotiations, international economic pressure, the non-violent strategic use of the UN, etc. This, in our enlightened Age of the Terrorist, has been circumvented so often that the strike-first-think-later route to war has too become accepted as necessary. So, even in its best light, war is a state of breakdown, a localised collapse of civilisation to its most base and barbaric. A place where usually young men, under the new appellation of ‘soldiers’, are given license to kill other, similarly young, renamed and permitted to murder, human beings. When this madness occurs in the 21st century, it is viewed by a British society predominately suffering from an emotional severance with humanity, quite like my younger self. Or maybe the news and the tabloids have got to you and you’re full of nationalistic pride for our heroes, forgetting there’s a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Or, just maybe you are one of the very few who can still taste the bile-bubbling disgust of the whole atrocious thing? image

The letter on the left appeared in The Daily Mail (5th September 2014). Whether from a genuine reader or not, I think it sums up the appalling state of global geo-politics. The kids in my school yard seemed to employ a similar strategy as they shot and grenaded anything that moved: mass confusion with mass aggression.

The concern is the situation is so insane that instead of inspiring outrage with the masses, it tends to inspire humour. The chortles of a joke not fully understood. It’s difficult for even the hardiest vanguard for war to support this tangled lunacy. Unless you’re an arms dealer, that is, or have lots invested in weapons manufacture and research…

Is it possible to suggest that the constant presence of war – even in those rare seconds when the British forces aren’t involved in some kind of conflict – is enough to permanently remind human beings of their barbaric potential, a sort of perpetual dripping tap? We have war movies, war west end shows, war historians, war monuments, war games, war museums… The list goes on. It has been well and truly embedded into the very fabric of western civilisation. A sort of singular imperialism that has been allowed to creep over us through the books of our intellectuals, the mouths of the politicians, and the glory of legend; like an ever darkening shadow.

What is the sole purpose of a gun?

With the answer still fresh in your mind, ask yourself another question: is it ok to teach children how to shoot them?

In 2011, the BBC revealed that in the UK shotgun licenses had been given out to children as young as 7. With parental permission, children of 16 can join the UK forces, despite not being perceived mature enough to vote, drive a car, or watch a horror film. Some organisations, such as Forces Watch and UNICEF, see this as adopting “child soldiers”, comparing the MoD to regimes like Iran and North Korea. They have also commented on the economic wastage associated with it, detailing up to £94m of unnecessary spending. Even though soldiers need to be 18 to be deployed in operations (this has only recently been changed. Soldiers as young as 17 were deployed in both Kosovo in 1999 and the first Iraq US/UK invasion of 1991. Also, at least twenty 17 year olds are known to have fought in the second Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, The Independent, May 2014), isn’t the concept of children being trained to kill a perverse one? When we add to this that it is far more likely to be soldiers enlisted from working class or disadvantaged families that see ground battle and witness the worst horrors of war, a far more sinister, socioeconomic scenario begins to emerge.

A recent study has suggested that there is a correlation between the young age of soldiers when joining the forces, their lower social class, and the development of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), depression, alcoholism and drug addiction on leaving. This appears to fly in the face of the permanent MoD line that the army is an excellent career choice for school leavers. For many years the film director David Lynch has been working with some of the world’s most desperate and damaged people. His foundation, which employs a simple but extremely effective meditative technique, has managed to turn around the psychological fate of hundreds of thousands of people. This has included over 10,000 US soldiers, returning from the Middle East and suffering from an array of mental and physical health problems. Through meditation, some distance is created between the mind and the culmination of trauma. This space can then be utilised to properly process and to some degree accept the events that led to mental breakdown. It has proven to be exceptionally successful.

What if we were to spin around the fall of events? In other words, offer meditative techniques to children throughout the UK from ages 10 onwards? The schools that have been involved with The David Lynch Foundation in the US have benefitted in a remarkable number of ways, including falls in absenteeism, reduction in violence and rises in academic performance. But also, the children themselves have reported feeling more calm, centred and able to engage with their own decision making processes. After all, if we are happy to accept a slow press-ganging of our children through a complex system of cadets, funded almost entirely by the MoD, then perhaps we can arm them not only with rifles but with a mind capable of deciding for themselves if ‘protecting’ our islands through wars of choice is how they truly want to spend their childhoods.

David Cameron in 2012 stated that the way cadets are funded will be changed. At the moment £26 million is pumped into 261 different schools (three quarters of which are private) that run CCFs (Combined Cadet Forces) through their education facilities. By 2015, there will be 100 more CCFs up and running in state schools, with another 250 to follow, so that, to quote the prime minister, “new horizons” can be opened up to our children leaving comprehensives.

The funding, however, will not be increased, sharing out the £26 million between all 611 schools. This has led to many private and public schools already stating that they will be forced to close down their cadet programs. If private schools slowly retreat from CCFs, it will leave the vast amount of 16 year old cadets going on to a career as full-time soldiers coming from state comprehensives.

It’s quite easy to envision this becoming a dragnet for the MoD, where, if a child is academically under performing, the school, due to its own great stresses, may be tempted to guide that child into the cadets rather than spending more time and resources on him or her. This would then widen even further the gulf between the number of wealthy and disadvantaged entry level soldiers, and our society could find itself developing a self imposed military draft of our most deprived children.

Mine! Mine! All of it, Mine!

When you stop and consider it, don’t you think its rather ridiculous to suggest that a human being can own a piece of the earth? Or to be a bit more accurate, temporarily own a section of the earth’s crust?

I’ve added the word ‘temporary’ there as, of course, that’s just what it is. A better word is transient. We don’t live for ever. The earth isn’t a permanent feature of the universe. And perhaps the universe itself may, at some point, pack up and call it a day.

This line of talk, though, seems to make people uncomfortable. Most people don’t really like to dwell on the transient nature of their own existence. Or of the things that they have worked hard (usually) to obtain: houses, cars, savings, etc. But the truth is these things don’t really belong to us. The word ‘mortgage’ itself is quite useful at reminding us of this fact. Mort- comes from the French/Latin word for death; and -gage is an archaic word for pledge or stake. So quite simply, the house has been pledged to you until your death.

It’s seems like this vital (if bitter to swallow) area of our knowledge has been pushed so far to the back of our minds that it’s fallen in with denial – a somewhat deceitful ability that most people don’t even realise they are using. But it’s so very powerful! We, certainly in western societies, employ it every day in order to get on with our lives. When we hear about atrocities occurring in other parts of the world, denial quickly switches on. I remember sitting with someone at work a few months ago and we caught the end of a news bulletin on the radio, reporting how a school bus had run off the road into a deep gully, killing all 40+ children on board. We both stopped what we were doing until the report had finished, listening to hear where it had taken place. But what difference did geography make? Or, are some children’s lives worth more than others? When the reporter stated it had happened in Nigeria, my colleague audibly sighed with relief.


The only way we can own anything is in a transient state. Once we understand this, it isn’t nearly as scary as you might think. In fact, it’s very liberating! I recently had a car accident and broke a few bones. The paramedics sped me to hospital and I spent a night on ICU before being moved to an orthopaedic ward. Although I’m now fine, these kind of events get you thinking about how the situation could have been worse… And what that might have meant.

Your clothes are cut from you and discarded like the skin of some battered fruit. The car is a crumpled bit of tin, an old can abandoned by the side of the road. People you’ve never met before begin their routine practice of, not wanting to be too dramatic, saving your life. There’s nothing you can do to assist except remain compliant: “Take a deep breath… Wriggle your toes… Open your eyes… Lift your legs…” Since there is little to do, your thoughts naturally focus on what has happened to you and then to the people it’s going to affect: my kids and partner, parents and friends… I didn’t spend too long worrying about the car.

Something that forces us to face these sort of considerations has a useful component too. It strips away the husk and the pith surrounding us, stuff we had come to think of as part of what we are: possessions; money; debt; job. It leaves us bare, so that only the real and essential elements remain: life; family; friends… people.

Unfortunately, this feeling subsides as we recover and ‘normalise’. I would guess that the vast majority of post-trauma people return to an extremely close version of the person they were before the accident. But they will be different. The breadth of this difference will vary on the severity of the trauma and the person involved. I’d like to suggest that, assuming a full physical recovery, the more it changes you, the better.

Yes, it’s nice to have things (I’m not immune from this nor a whole host of other failings): Cars, stereos, coffee makers, microwaves, flat screen TVs (by the way, do you remember when you didn’t change your TV every five or so years? The telly I always remember from my parents house had a doily and ornaments on the top and was treated like a piece of the furniture), DVD players, iPads, wardrobes stuffed with never worn clothes (the list goes on and on). These things can offer you something practical which my help you minimally in life, but mainly these are things that symbolise our ‘success’. For example, a 20 year old car with dented and corroded body work but an excellent engine may only appeal to people who understand ‘green’ issues, or perhaps a collector of cars. It would offer the same practicality as a new car in many respects, but it wouldn’t display what we believe to be our status, so at some point the practical aspects are overtaken by the more superficial need to show off.

There’s little surprise that this is the case. I could talk to someone about this until I am blue in the face (and have!) but there is little chance that I can compete with the 24 hours a day omnipotent influences that exist in our society. These influences range from advertising and marketing, to the car parked on your neighbour’s drive. And what is more, these influences have been with us from the first day of our lives. It is an aspect of us I’d like to call inherited social knowledge. There are many more of these aspects that we take for granted or indeed assume have always been the same: democracy; the financial system; private property; money; fields full of sheep and cows (mainly sheep!); our lack of spirituality; political parties; war; famine; global poverty; oil; education; public health and many, many more. Systems we are born in to.

What something like an accident does is allow you to poke your head out above the canopy of your life. A better description might be to rent a tear in the thin veil that spreads itself out over society and breath in the truth.

I wouldn’t like everyone to have to go through the fear and pain that associates itself with a crash like mine, though. If you take any of this on board then hopefully you won’t need to. I’m asking you to look at your own life, hopefully from a platform of health, and ask yourself what is important to you? Is it people, community, solidarity, health, freedom, our children, education and knowing honestly what it is to be you, a human being? Or is it just the stuff we gather around us, so that we have to build higher fences to protect it?

A Search for Quality

“Farewell to the besoms of heather and bloom

Farewell to the creels and the basket

For the folks of today they would far sooner pay

For a thing that’s been made out of plastic”

Ewan McCall



There is a small 7mm ratchet spanner on the side of the desk in the department where I work. It was forgotten by an engineer that came to service some equipment a few months ago. I like to pick it up and hold it. It has a weight that gives you a pocket of confidence in your hand. It is stainless steel and shines. The switch that alternates the ratchet is a dark alloy; it reassures the thumb as it snaps left to right. The reason it feels so good to hold is because the design is ergonomic, mimicking the space around your hand. The weight balanced. The function clear. Its moving parts fluid and strong. It is a high quality tool that as you hold it, feels like a natural extension of your hand.

There is something else which makes this little ratchet special. In 2014, this kind of quality is rare.


I spoke to my friend Tom recently, a highly skilled joiner and craftsman. I’ve watched him carefully repair all our sash-box windows over the last 2 years. He showed me a tool box set aside in the back of his Transit. “These I’ve had since I started.” He opened the lid and disclosed a variety of old, but extremely well looked after hand tools. Twelve solid steel chisels with boxwood handles, their edges gleaming; hand drills with chucks still hungry and ready to bite; a claw hammer on a hickory shaft, its patina a testament to servitude. There were others buried beneath, but the back of the van was dark. “All the others,” he motioned to several other buckets filled with screwdrivers, Stanley knives, drill bits, saws, and other bits and pieces, “need replacing every couple of years.” He clunked shut the Transit’s wonky back door.


Samsung seem to have raised the bar on marketing strategy. Forgive me if there is a company that spends more on advertising, but at $14billion for 2013 I doubt anyone is even close. Samsung’s budget has increased 14 fold since 2003 taking spending in this arena to a new level. There are a cluster of other super-corporations all jostling around the $2.5 – $4billion mark. Now that someone has made a move, surely the others will follow.

Maybe 100-120 years ago, marketing and advertising behaved differently to what we see today. It saw itself more of an advising and describing role. This was mainly because as a consumer it was assumed you knew pretty much what you wanted to buy, and the advertising helped you out with the fine tuning, making sure the product came as close as possible to matching your original needs. This allowed the consumer accurate information before buying. This remains the philosophical backbone of advertising. Except these days, it doesn’t really work that way.

The nature of the economical market means that competition always gives rise to competing brands. Take for example shampoo. I have no idea how many different brands there are out there of ‘hair soap’, all probably purporting to be, usually through pseudo-science, different to their rivals. But really, although there will be some variety in quality, all shampoo does the same thing. It cleans your hair. What advertising is doing now, and spending billions to achieve it, is convincing us otherwise.

With this arrangement it would be difficult for quality to be anything other than a market novelty or so expensive as to make it an unlikely purchase for the average consumer. However, there is another, more underhand technique employed inherently into almost all the goods we buy. Its called planned obsolescence, and although economists advocates this ploy through the philosophy of Philip Kotler et al, to me it is quite obviously unethical. The basic idea is that whatever you purchase has a predetermined lifespan before becoming obsolete. Be it having to upgrade your computer’s operating software or a deliberately designed weakness in a mechanism; it all leads to the same thing: a perpetual cycle of purchasing semi-disposable or ‘faulty’ items. I don’t have to mention the Black and Decker Workmate, do I? If anyone compared the version from the 80s to the one of today, it would probably be inferior in every way.


So what’s my point? Ok, so they don’t make things like they used to. So what?

Well I think there is a point to be made here. When we hear western leaders (and by that I mean any country that has allowed itself to be governed by money) talk about ‘progress’, we have all naturally assumed that they had in mind somewhere we were progressing to. Somewhere better. I no longer think that is the case. Instead, we are tracking along on a conveyor belt of consumerism, struck senseless by a global barrage of $500billion worth of advertising. The longer we sit on this banal ride the further we move from quality and closer to a degrading of our way of life. To see human design fail us the way it currently is may have unknown effects on society as a whole. Our consumer driven, disposable culture has distanced us from quality, perhaps even lowering other baselines as it went? Surely it’s not difficult to imagine that inferior tools lead to an inferior job? Let me give you an example. The NHS in Britain has, for the last decade or so, been going through a constant process of planned obsolescence. By that I mean almost all safe and robust systems of practice have been replaced with flimsy, but cheaper, replicas. When these begin to break, they are simply replaced by an even inferior model that runs along for even less time before showing signs of strain. When these weak systems fail completely, it is staff that becomes the focus of the problem, not the blunt and broken tools they are left holding.


And what about the conveyor belt? Anyone interested in where it is carrying us? You could ask your politicians, but their answer would be the usual confused rhetoric. Instead, let me tell you: it goes nowhere, just around and around until it splutters and stops.

Here’s a better question to ask. What’s your definition of progress?