Saturday, 25 September 2010

Forbidden Flowers

Here is something I wrote a while ago but then decided I didn't like. I recently returned to it and actually thought it was quite good. It's fictitious, but something more in the form of a monologue than a story. I also think it raises a really interesting point. Enjoy and let me know what you think, especially concerning the style in which it's presented.

My name is Francis Dunn, and I am in love.

I know I’m only 18 and she’s only 17, but this is for real. I know that most relationships in adolescence break under the strain of changing hormones and changing lives, or are meaningless, temporary flings; vague pretences at feelings we don’t understand, but this is different. We both know it. You can’t choose who you fall in love with.

I’ve known Elly – that’s her name, Elly; Eleanor – for as long as I can remember. We used to play together when we were young, we’ve always gone to the same school, except that one year between Primary and Secondary – she’s a year below me – and we’ve always been best of friends. We have been a constant fixture in each other lives. We know each other better than anyone else knows either of us.

We have always been more than best friends however. We’ve always, as far as I can remember, been in love. Perhaps the love we felt for each other was different when we were still sitting on my bedroom floor building Lego castles and pitting Lego Pirates against Lego Red Indians in battles and games and stories that only we understood, or when we used to play on the swing in the garden, trying to get as high as we possibly could, but always just failing to go all the way over the bar and back to where we started again, no matter how hard we tried. Maybe that love was the sort of love you find between friends so close that they are almost siblings, but the seed of our current passion was planted in our playful, carefree youth.

That seed lay beneath the soil of our upbringing, watered and nourished by our continual friendship, until it sprouted and poked its head tentatively above the ground. The rain and the sun of the ups and downs on our early adolescence allowed that shoot to grow and a bud to appear, concealing the beautiful flower of our love, afraid, for now, to bloom and show itself to the world.

Then one night, as we sat up, talking as we can do for hours on end, about nothing and everything, our lips met in a spontaneously and simultaneously acceptance of the feelings we had both acknowledged, but feared to express before. The petals opened and a wonderful red flower erupted from the bud, blossoming in all its forbidden glory. At that moment we both cast aside the trepidation and the prejudice of our society. We ignored the cultural taboo and allowed our love to open its face to the world and shine, more brightly than all the stars in the sky on a clear night in the country, where there is nothing to blot out the billions of burning suns, so many light-years away, yet looking so close, so tangible, as though we could reach out and touch them.

We haven’t told our parents yet, afraid that they’ll refuse to accept our relationship, to see our love for what it is. Just like everyone else, who thinks we’re just attention seeking, joking, being silly or just plain wrong. We’re afraid to tell anyone because we know they won’t understand, but it doesn’t matter because they are just people with opinions, and their opinions have no effect on the truth, and the truth is that Elly and I are in love.

I remember that night when we consummated our love, in my bed, when all the stars were out and no-one else was at home. We were a tangle of arms and legs and bedding and the love we were making. I remember we lay in each other’s arms, exhausted, but refusing to allow sleep to rob us of that moment. When sleep finally took us, it found us inseparable, so took us together, arms wrapped around each other. When we woke we refused to get up, lying in bed until the temporary need for food pulled us apart long enough to gobble down a hastily made sandwich, before returning to our long embrace.

The thing is; the thing that makes us scared to tell even our parents, the thing that means we are bullied at school and abhorred in principle by society, the thing that sets our love apart from every other teenage relationship, from the deeply loving to the superficial and self-deprecating, is that Elly… well she’s my sister.

And no-one seems to be able to accept that you can’t choose who your fall in love with. We’re soul mates, Elly and I, no matter how abhorrent everyone makes that out to be. No-one can come to terms with our love because they’re taught by society that it’s wrong and so they assume that we’re mistaken, or lying, or attention seeking, or just plain evil. We’re not.

We’re had counselling for issues we don’t have and problems that don’t need to be solved. Self appointed experts have tried to examine us and our upbringing, to find some fault that has caused us to be who we are, always looking for ‘psychological trauma’ or ‘unfulfilled desires’. They patronised us, telling us that it was just a phase and that we’d get over it. It’s all bullshit because we know that our relationship is better than those of all our peers who are all going out with each other, hopping from one unfulfilled, meaningless relationship that is really little more than sex to another, yet they are never counselled, or examined for ‘psychological trauma’ or ‘unfulfilled desires’.

We were even sent to see the school Chaplain so that he could explain to us in no uncertain terms that it was unnatural and not how God wanted us to be. I asked him why He’d made us like this in the first place if it was so unnatural and he babbled some mumbo-jumbo about The Fall and a test and free will and I stopped listening because I realised that, for all his reading and learning at his posh university where he got his degree in Theology, and his Dog Collar, he was just another drone wheeling out the same old excuses, condemning an act because no-one accepts it, not because there’s anything wrong with it.

We cannot choose who we fall in love with. Everyone acts like I should feel ashamed because I love my sister, not as a sister, but as a lover. There’s no reason to feel shame at love because it’s unconventional. I would feel shame if I had refused to acknowledge my love for Elly, and told myself, like everyone else told me, that it was a phase, a mistake, unnatural, immoral. But I didn’t.

My name it Francis Dunn, and I am in love.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Pope comes to town

In the last week the UK has had a very powerful, important and controversial visitor; The Pope is making his long awaited state visit. This visit has caused outrage among many non-Catholics ever since it’s announcement in April. The most outspoken and widely reported press campaign against the pope came from our old friends Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen who, with the typical diplomacy of a sedge hammer wielded by a maniac, threatened to have the pope arrested and charged for crimes against humanity. Unsurprisingly these threats turned out to be hot air, but there remained a large group of people who protested the Pope’s visit this week, claiming that he had no right to a state visit to the UK.

You might already know that I’m not the biggest fan of organised religion and indeed I think the world would be a better place without some of the dogmatic, ignorant and frankly irrational views of some of the world’s more extreme religious groups – and yes I count the traditional Catholicism that the pope represents in that group. However whether we like it or not the pope is the leader of one of the world’s largest religions, and one which hold considerable clout in the UK. He is also the Head of State of the Vatican City – his country may be small, but it is still a country. He has every right to a state visit just as any other state leader has, as indeed does any other major world religious leader.

Just because the pope has visited the UK, does not mean that the British Government stands behind all of the pope’s views – many of which display an almost painful irrationality and backwardness. Traditional Catholicism is a horrifyingly dogmatic and intolerant religion which has done much to damage international relations and has held back progress in some of the poorest and most hunger stricken parts of the world. The UK government should in no way support or endorse many of the pope’s policies. This is not to say however that he should not be allowed to make a state visit to our country and be allowed to voice and propagate views with which most reasonable people will see to be utterly absurd.

We might object entirely to what the pope has to say, indeed we should, but that does not remove his right to say it. As a head of state and the leader of a major world religion he has every right to a state visit and to meet with important British politicians. To deny him such is to be as intolerant as the views that he propagates. Tolerance of those who are also tolerant is easy – there’s no reason not to accept accepting people into society – it is tolerance of the intolerant this is far harder because we know their views are abhorrent. However in the same way as legalising something does not make it moral, tolerating someone does not mean agreeing with them.

Just as the pope has every right to a state visit, we have every right to tell him that we believe his views to be abhorrent, irrational and deeply damaging. Rather than protesting that the pope has no right to come to our country on a state visit like petulant children who can’t stand the thought of people with whom we disagree being in the same room as us, we should act like mature, responsible, intelligent human beings and tell the pope by whatever means possibly – and, the UK being a democratic country, there are plenty of them – that we disagree with his views. I very much doubt that the pope will be moved to completely change his views on fundamental issues, but at least we will be able to hold our heads high and say that we tried and did so in the best way possible.

In fairness to this protests it is principally trying to do just that; demonstrate to the pope that we disagree with him on fundamental issues, however it is unfortunate that, as is so often the case, intolerance of the intolerant crept into the protests and made it too much about whether the pope should even be allowed on a state visit to the UK and too little about why his views are so unpleasant. As is often the case, the intention was good, but the execution sadly failed because it is far too easy to be unpleasant, intolerant and unfair and far too hard in the face of the same unpleasantness, intolerance and unfairness to be civil, tolerant and just.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Sickness of America

Unless you have a terminal fear of calendars you will no doubt be aware that yesterday marked the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and (less notoriously) the White House. You might also be aware of the rather disturbing threats by some fervent anti-Islamists to honour this anniversary by burning Qur’ans. Fortunately these threats were largely hot air, but they are indicative of a dangerous attitude held by many Americans, and indeed people of other nations, towards the Islamic world.

Yesterday was a day of mourning in The Big Apple marred by a rather unfortunate protest. The epicentre was a proposed Islamic Cultural Centre and Prayer Room only a few blocks away from the site of that most terrible of attacks. While it is, perhaps, somewhat insensitive to build an Islamic Centre so near such hallowed ground, especially when the wounds inflicted on that September day are still painfully fresh, it should be seen as an opportunity for reconciliation and to heal the wounds inflicted by Islamic Extremists. To protest against these proposals does nothing to repair the damage done on 9/11, indeed it only serves to further drive a wedge between America and the Muslim world; even the more liberal end of it, which holds many similar ideals to those upon which America is founded.

One of those ideals is tolerance. America was once a melting pot which accepted people from all walks of life and of all creeds into its society. The ‘land of opportunity’ is in part a myth, but it is built upon a genuine openness and acceptance which is now, as with many of the ideals upon which America is built, sadly forgotten by many Americans. If America is ever to fully recover and move on from 9/11 it needs to change the policy that caused the fierce resentment of America that was held by even relatively moderate Muslims at the turn of the millennium. Over-aggressive foreign policy towards the Middle East made America the enemy; American support of the state of Israel being indicative of this attitude. The radical views of the few influenced the majority of the Muslim world, turning all of them against America. The way to solve this problem is to stop being the enemy of liberal and moderate Muslims; stripping the extremists of their popular support.

The thing is that the proposal is being put forward by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a liberal American Muslim who has condemned the 9/11 attacks as ‘unislamic’. He has the very reasonable aim of promoting tolerance in his Centre by facilitating all religions and promoting reconciliation and respect between religions. Rauf is exactly the kind of man that America should be welcoming with open arms and this proposal would be a huge step in the right direction towards pulling the rug from beneath the feet of terrorism. Yet people protest against this proposal, displaying the same attitude that caused the almost world-wide resentment of America that existed in 2001 and still exits to this day. It’s almost as though people don’t learn from their own mistakes.

The real tragedy of this protest however is the timing. Yesterday should have been a day of mourning and introspection, not a day of protest and anger. 9/11 may have been an international disaster which has changed the face of world politics and triggered at least 2 large scale conflicts, but it was also a human tragedy that tore apart literally thousands of families. Its 9th anniversary should be a time to mourn the loss of all the people who died that day and to try to make sure that such a tragedy never happens again. It is truly sad that a group of people feels the need to undermine such a day by voicing hate and prejudice against people striving for such reconciliation.

There is another side however. Opposite those protesting against the Centre was a group on favour of it. A group of Americans who believe that they have every right to build an Islamic Cultural Centre a few block away from ground zero. A group who think that to blame Islam as a whole for the tragedy of 9/11 is a complete misunderstanding of the situation and is also deeply harmful to international relations between America and the Muslim world. So maybe this other group is indicative of the fact that there is some hope. That in the future America might be able to put the resentment and the hate of 9/11 behind them, to recover from that terrible wound inflicted that autumn. Or maybe it’s just indicative of the fact that America is divided on almost every political and ethical issue.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

It's just not cricket

I said a few months ago ( that I tend not to write too much about sport, the reason for which I explained in some detail in that post. However as a massive fan of cricket (yes I really am that British), recent revelations about spot fixing, almost exactly 10 years after the last corruption scandal that rocked the game in 2000, have shocked me into breaking one of the few rules I set myself for this blog.

While ten years ago it was South African captain Hanse Cronje who was at the eye of the corrupt storm for accepting money to deliberately throw games, last weekend it was Pakistani fast bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif around whom the cricketing world exploded an a shower of righteous indignation and abject shock. The crime is no longer as game changing or as monumental as deliberately trying to lose a game, it is simple deliberately bowling a No Ball as certain specific points in the match. The bowler’s actions only influenced the outcome of the match to the tune of 3 runs in England’s monumental total of over 400 – Pakistan were subsequently dismissed twice for under 150 and defeated heavily. However, while their impact on the match in hand was far less than Cronje’s, their crime is no less heinous.

Amir and Asif are guilty of abject dishonesty and injustice in an arena built on honest and fairness. Sport is, at heart, a competition between two groups of individuals who are trying as best they can to defeat their opposition legitimately within the laws of the game. You play under the assumption that your opponent is trying just as hard as you are to gain victory and so you are pitting yourself against his of her greatest efforts in an even playing field – the laws are the same for both sides. Sport is an expression of human competitiveness in a controlled environment which encourages skill and intelligence as well as brute strength and power. When someone plays a sport for more than just the desire to win, you rob that sport of the fundamental principles upon which it is built. Thus when a couple of bowlers seemingly harmlessly put their foot a few inches further down the 22 yards that they’re allowed for a few bucks on the side, they tear the very spirit of the game.

The tragedy of the situation is that you can understand exactly why they did it. Pakistan is not like India, England, Australia or South Africa – world leaders, both in wealth and talent in the cricketing world of 2010 – they are poor, under-resourced, their country is ravaged by war and by flood. Playing for Pakistan is not a lucrative career path; especially when you cant simply jet off to India for a month of two a year to compete in the money-drowned Indian Premier League – Pakistani players are bared from the tournament. The Pakistani team was in turmoil even before this most recent torrent. They have had more captains that Test victories in the last 12 months, been dismissed for record low scores and thrown away matches which have seemed to be impossible to lose. Selection is inconsistent, players are inexperienced and coaching is lacklustre. Amid this turmoil there have been heroic wins which belie the talent of the team, and the impetus for these wins has come from the two at the centre of this current controversy. Amir and Asif have both bowled brilliantly this summer; Amir in particular has shone, all the brighter because of his age – he’s younger than me!

So here are two bowlers performing at the top of their game, dismissing two of the best sides in world cricket for under 100. Around them their team repeatedly implodes and crashes to crushing defeat after crushing defeat. They get little support from their team mates either in the field or with the bat. To compound this they get paid far less that the players that they repeatedly best week after week. I think it’s understandable that they would become disheartened and disgruntled. They reason that the odd No Ball here and there is pretty harmless in the context of the game and ask why they shouldn’t try to pick up a bit of extra cash on the side to supplement their relatively measly income. This is perhaps the most frightening thing about the entire affair – its absolute plausibility. The Cronje affair was terrifying because it was so unbelievable, this one is equally terrifying, but because it is so very believable.

We should not allow the circumstances surrounding this affair cloud our judgment however. What Amir and Asif did was wrong; understanding why they did it does not make it any less so. There is no place in the game for such actions and a clear message needs to be sent out to the cricketing world that such behaviour is unacceptable. Should the allegations against them be proven to be true – and they are still, as yet, allegations – they should not step onto a cricket field to represent their country ever again. It is a terrible shame to destroy the careers of such young men, Amir in particular, but the game of cricket is bigger than the career of one young man. Ultimately these players have only themselves to blame. Sure the external pressures were strong, but there is always the opportunity to say ‘no’ and more importantly to report the tempters to team managers and indeed to the international body set up in 2000 to tackle corruption. There are plenty of examples in the last ten years of players doing just that.

Inevitably this incident is and has been a remarkable catalyst for introspection from the cricketing world. Corruption was not wiped from the game in 2000, its spectre has always hovered ominously over cricket, but, apart from occasional incidences taken in isolation, the media and the cricketing bureaucracy have allowed it to fester out of sight. For 10 years it has been an elephant in the room. Now however the cricketing world is presented with a perfect opportunity to remove corruption root and branch. This incident acutely reveals the nature of the corruption. It is no longer about match fixing, or even about fixing large statistics and major events in the game, it is about small, insignificant occurrences which have little or no impact on the actual match. With the growth of the internet, betting can be done so much faster and so much more easily that every single ball of a cricket match is an event which can be bet upon. While there are allegations that a recent game in Sydney between Pakistan and Australia, in which Pakistan lost from an inconceivably strong position, was fixed, it seems that, for the most part, fixing has become much more small scale and insidious that it was ten years ago. However through a thorough investigation into this issue, tighter regulations and sever punishments for anyone caught out in this most recent affair, corruption can be tackled and dealt a sever blow. It will never be irradiated because there will always be people ready to cheat to make easy cash, but the job that was started and not finished in 2000 can at least be done more satisfactorily this time round.

The spotlight must also fall on Pakistani cricket itself, which has suffered a number of body blows in recent years. As well as on field problems, selection remains a contention issue, as does administrative corruption and internal security – Pakistan are no longer hosting tours due to fears for the safety of players. Pakistan is a country suffering from floods, internal strife, international pressure over suspicions of terrorist activity and widespread corruption. It is hardly surprising that it’s cricket in is disarray. There have been calls to ban Pakistan from playing international cricket at the highest level as a result of the issues surrounding the team. However, while the solution to on-field corruption is to ban players in order to send a strong message of zero tolerance to the rest of the cricketing community, the solution the Pakistan’s problems are not to throw them out. Individual administrators might be at fault for some of the problems, and if they are then those individuals should be punished accordingly, but an entire nation of people, many of whom are honest, cricket loving people who simply want to see their nation perform well, should not be punished for the maladministration of a few senior officials. Pakistani cricket needs to be nourished, supported and cared for by the international community through the current problems. Pakistan has produced some of the finest crickets ever to grace the game and will continue to do so. It would be criminal to destroy the potential career of future Pakistani cricketers as punishment for the crimes of today’s corrupt administrators and players.

No doubt this scandal will continue to unfold over the next few weeks and months. If I think future revelation merit another post, no doubt I will return to this issue, but for now I apologise to those for whom much of this post made little sense because you don’t follow cricket. I hope that you still find the wider issues relevant, because the match and spot fixing are not exclusive to cricket. They are a menace for all sports.