Friday, 9 May 2014

Extract from 'Reflections of An Atheist Headteacher'

The following is an extract from a blog post on which so perfectly encapsulates my personal position on Christianity, religion and faith, that I felt compelled to publish it here as if the words were my own. They aren't - I'd struggle to write anything as eloquent - but in light of my wife's faith, which I don't share, it offers an explanation of how I can accept both her beliefs and be open to the benefits of raising our two children in a church community...

I am an atheist; but I am not anti-religion.  That’s not what atheism means for me [...]. Although I don’t believe in a God, over the years I have developed a perspective on religion that I find necessary in order to acknowledge and accept other people’s faith in God. When people for whom I have enormous respect as individuals and intellectuals, are also serious Christians, Sikhs or Muslims, I find it isn’t helpful to dismiss their faith as a delusion. In fact, increasingly I find it better to interpret religion as a natural expression of our humanity; our human quest for understanding.

To me, the fact that dispersed and isolated human societies have all developed religions of different kinds over the centuries, suggests that religion meets human needs on a number of levels.  Fundamentally I see all notions of a God as a proxy for connecting to our shared humanity; religious faith, to my mind, gives people an accessible vehicle to express a range of ideas and feelings that all humans share, regardless of faith:
  • A way to rationalise our existence on Earth and to face our mortality as individuals and, ultimately, as a species
  • A means of expressing a sense of gratitude for the joy of living and the love people feel for each other
  • A context for communal activity, sharing expressions of wonder at the power of our shared humanity – including communal singing and prayer
  • A framework for a moral and ethical code reinforced through stories and philosophical teachings
  • A source of hope and comfort in a confusing world where, amid the joy, sadness, loneliness, pain, hunger and poverty are all too prevalent [...]
  • A way to give meaning and purpose to our existence; that yearning for a bigger scheme of things, beyond a humble biological human life.
Christianity and all the other religions seek to address these things and, in many respects, succeed for those who believe in them.  But they are all common themes in human society, God or no God. I find that, with this spirit, I have a great deal in common with my Christian colleagues; we share the same views about a range of moral and ethical questions and about the science of our origins.

Obviously, there are important differences that we need to face and acknowledge.  There’s a major conceptual gulf between believing in a supreme being and not believing in one. As an atheist, I don’t regard the Bible or the ideas about Jesus being the Son of God as anything more than a collection of folkloric tales and recollections distorted through the passage of time.  Most Christians believe some spiritual or miraculous experiences and concepts to be real when atheists regard them as beyond rational possibility.  Some aspects of religious practice are challenging and occasionally offensive to me – such as the link between church and state and the belief that any one religion could be more valid than any other or imposed on others.

 But, I can still value the core of religious ideas as humanistic and genuine. The rituals and rules of religion – the places of worship, symbols,  prayer ceremonies, rules about food, marriage and clothing – are to me entirely human constructs, handed down through generations. Again, that is something that I can accept and embrace - provided I’m not expected to give these things undue meaning or reverence. I also feel we should be able to challenge these things at times – because they are human and not divine in origin.

 At Christmas time, I can go one stage further. The Christmas story has been passed on for centuries – a true story for Christians with deep significance.  But, as an atheist, I can still appreciate the value in celebrating a human life with a story about forgiveness, suffering, peace and hope. Not only that, but I’d argue that since for centuries, English culture has been filtered or carried by Christian institutions and rituals, they are a genuine part of my cultural heritage whether I like it or not. I don’t have to believe the Jesus story to appreciate the significance of the underlying human themes.  Of course, in my family, Christmas is all about Santa, turkey, Rudolph and the tree; but when I take part in the Nine Lessons and Carols service at Chelmsford Cathedral I don’t feel like a fraud; it’s a story that we’ve all grown up with and the moral messages are common to us all.  I actually feel that it’s my story too; even though I don’t believe it is literally or historically true, it’s part of my culture...

Extract from 'Reflections of An Atheist Headteacher'

Friday, 20 December 2013

Jocky's Top 25 TV Shows of 2013

25. The Big Reunion - ITV2
24. Arne Dahl - BBC Four
23. Burton and Taylor - BBC Four
22. Run - Channel 4
21. Imagine: David Bowie - Cracked Actor - BBC Four
20. The Sound of Cinema: The Music that Made the Movies - BBC Four
19. Utopia - Channel 4
18. Dancing on the Edge - BBC One
17. The Americans - ITV1
16. Borgen - BBC Four
15. The Day of The Doctor - BBC One
14. Clare Balding's Secret of a Suffragette - Channel 4
13. Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic - BBC Four
12. It's Kevin - BBC Two
11. David Bowie - Five Years - BBC Two
10. Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars and Us - BBC Four
9. An Adventure in Space and Time - BBC Two
8. Stephen Fry's Out There - BBC One
7. Top of the Lake - BBC One
6. Toast of London - Channel 4
5. Storyville: Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer - BBC Four
4. Storyville: From the Land to the Sea Beyond - BBC Four
3. Mad Men - Sky Atlantic
2. The Fall - BBC One
1. Hillsborough: How they Buried the Truth - BBC One

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Jocky's Top 25 Albums of 2013

25. Days are Gone - Haim
24. Shaking the Habitual - The Knife
23. Comedown Machine - The Strokes
22. Push the Sky Away - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
21. Bankrupt! - Phoenix
20. Praxis Makes Perfect - Neon Neon
19. mbv - My Bloody Valentine
18. Sticky Wickets - The Duckworth Lewis Method
17. The Electric Lady - Janelle Monáe
16. Arc - Everything Everything
15. Light Up Gold - Parquet Courts
14. Holy Fire - Foals
13. Amok - Atoms for Peace
12. Reflektor - Arcade Fire
11. AM - Arctic Monkeys
10. ...Like Clockwork - Queens of the Stone Age
9. Right Thoughts,  Right Words, Right Action - Franz Ferdinand
8. Silence Yourself - Savages
7. Machineries of Joy - British Sea Power
6. Electric - Pet Shop Boys
5. Rewind the Film - Manic Street Preachers
4. Bloodsports - Suede
3. Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend
2. Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
1. The Next Day - David Bowie

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Bigger on the Inside — What to make of 50 years of Who?

The BBC celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Doctor Who are now being confined to our collective memory but what did this global televisual event really symbolise for Planet Earth…?

Like me, you’re probably suffering from an acute case of Whovian fatigue, so ubiquitous was the raft of programming dedicated to the science fiction phenomenon as it approached its half century. It left one feeling somewhat over exposed. Much of the fanfare, it has to be said, took the form of self-referential, superlative waff, but to dismiss the nostalgiafest as wholly vacuous would also be extremely unkind.

For any television programme to have existed so long in today’s fast moving and fickle world of entertainment is an achievement worthy of note. One only trumped on UK television by Blue Peter, The Sooty Show and ITV’s soap opera Coronation Street.

Although here’s where you could argue the BBC is being somewhat disingenuous. All those shows have run continuously since their inception but the BBC’s opinion of Doctor Who hasn’t always been so affectionate. The Corporation cancelled the show in 1989 and, with the exception of one aborted attempted to resurrect the series in 1996, Doctor Who was de facto defunct for 15 years between 1990 and 2004. Only now, due to the unexpected global audience the show has garnered since its 2005 rebirth, are the BBC confident enough to go ‘all in’ on the ‘Who ha’!

Even from a critical standing it all seems a bit much, bearing in mind the show's second coming has only occasionally spun the considerable chaff of a full seven series into the rarest of TV gold. 

However, just as I was tiring of all things TARDIS, along came Mark Gatiss’s ode to the First Doctor, a dramatisation of the show’s origin story. As I settled in to 'An Adventure In Space And Time', a practically perfect love letter to Doctor Who, I began to feel all my cynicism ebb away.

For here was the essence of what makes Doctor Who special. David Bradley’s excellent embodiment of William Hartnell, the insecure, ageing ‘character actor’ whose ill health eventually led to the regeneration conceit, was truly something to behold. To see the despair in his realisation that his time as the Doctor is coming to an end is both heartbreaking and portentous, symbolising at it does, the fear we all feel at the transience of our limited time on Earth, that our existence is but a mere, insignificant footnote in the history of humanity.

Imagine you were the only actor to have played the role, how gut wrenching it would be to consider it continuing in your absence. As Hartnell meets his successor in the form of Reece Sheersmith’s Patrick Troughton, it becomes clear the game is finally up – “Why does everything have to change?” he bleats, but, of course, it must; the only permanence in our lives being impermanence.

Yet what he couldn't realise at the time was how the foundation he laid would still be bearing the weight of the whole Doctor Who canon some 50 years in the future.

Many viewers of the anniversary episode, screened simultaneously worldwide, would have registered a similar feeling to Hartnell’s melancholy. For those younger than me, it would have been at the appearance of David Tennant’s Doctor, for those older, the cameo from Tom Baker.

But, then, perhaps the passing of an everlasting torch from one (re)generation to the next is our only salvation from the spectre of our inevitable mortality; whether it be the ideals, beliefs and knowledge that a parent passes to a child or the skills and experience a mentor passes to a trainee?

After all, if even the Lord of all time and space can’t free himself from that one great certainty, then perhaps we humans shouldn't feel so aggrieved we are also denied an eternity.

Doctor Who is to be cherished for so much – its morality, its faith in science, its wonderful escapism – but perhaps it is the sense of belonging that each generation’s Doctor gives to their audience that makes the show a true diamond in the rough? It has delivered a different meaning to different sets of fans the world over, each imprinting on their version of the Doctor their own, distinct, self-image.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bruce Almighty

“Good evening ladies, gentleman and children welcome to Strictly Come Dancing…”
With these lines the great entertainer Bruce Forsyth introduces the latest in a long line of prime time television shows he has presented since his career begun almost half a century ago.

Yet, I wonder, do you notice anything unusual about this otherwise seemingly functional welcome…?

The inclusion of the word ‘children’.

Only Bruce would care to make the distinction. Only Bruce would think to address children directly for the sake of inclusivity. Admittedly, those children watching will undoubtedly pay it no heed, they probably think Bruce a doddery, odd character, well-meaning but somewhat jarring with their preconceived, if fledgling, idea of what constitutes light entertainment in the modern age. They’re probably right!

Nonetheless, to me this seemingly inconsequential nicety speaks volumes as to why Brucie’s continuing appearance on our televisions should be cherished dearly by us all.

His skill at fostering a warm and genuine environment for family entertainment is unsurpassed. For example: taking time to lead the studio audience in an impromptu chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ for ‘former Bond girl’ Fiona Fullerton; breaking off in the middle of a link to chastise the floor manager for pointing him in the direction of the correct camera — “I know which camera it is, I’m not an idiot”; pretending to be caught unawares in mid-conversation with a member of the studio audience as his co-host hands back to him — all surprisingly anarchic but loveable elements of his repertoire that no doubt drive those behind the cameras to distraction.

Of course, not even his greatest fan could ever truly suggest his presentation is slick and refined, fumbling as he does every other line, regularly emphasising the wrong word in sentences and occasionally fluffing a punch line to the miffed reaction of a silent crowd. The autocue is certainly not his friend.

Yet none of this matters, partly because of his inherent charm but also because, when he lets loose - improvising and reacting to events unfolding before him - he produces spontaneous moments of pure, unadulterated rapport.

His genius (and it is a genius) is to be constantly aware of the inherent absurdity bred of live television, of the constructs that can be bent and sometimes broken in the otherwise necessarily restrictive format of a live game show. Despite his seemingly old fashioned approach, he’s an incredibly subversive presence, yet always showing an empathy towards his contestants as well as maintaining an air of irreverence.

During his time presenting ‘The Generation Game’ in the 1970s — a show where members of the public attempted various skilful acts, from creating a clay pot on a potter’s wheel to acting famous parts in parodies of stage plays — he was particularly adept at walking the fine line between affected sympathy and outright condescension.

Anyone witness to his perennial trope of making notes in a notebook as over excited contestants unveil their embarrassing foibles see this dynamic at work, muttering audibly under his breath “This one’s trouble”.

For he is at once for the contestant and the audience, sharing the latters desire to laugh at those making fools of themselves whilst also respecting the contestants courage in willingly doing so. That takes an especially rare and delicate touch.

In the age of the hectoring bully of a presenter or, worse still, the chummy, anodyne best friend, Forsyth walks a middle path, one that shows an honesty, sensitivity and affinity with the public and, above all, an acute fondness for the medium in which he operates.

His enduring career has weaved from association with the Trans-Atlantic giants of entertainment — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr — to the home grown UK totems of British comedy — Barker, Corbett, Cooper and Dawson for instance. He clearly idolises them, studies them, is in love with their oeuvre. It shows. He now embodies the heritage of over half a century of the best of light entertainment.

His inevitable final curtain call will sever us eternally from that heritage, no longer evident on contemporary Saturday night television but confined to the BBC Four retrospective, the youTube video and the satire of the impressionist.

Mock him, of course, how could you not? His distinct voice, mannerisms, catchphrases—let alone his chin—all demand it. Yet, don’t ever be under the misapprehension you’re witnessing a flummoxed old has-been. Here is a master at work; a special talent that defines an age soon to be lost forever.
“Apologies for missing last week’s show. As you know, I’ve been ill recently and I’d just like to say, Craig [Strictly Come Dancing judge], thank you for the flowers… they were the most beautiful wreath I’ve ever seen.”

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


The disarming of Nixon will always be considered his defining moment but this Margaret Thatcher interview is equally revealing…

As the career retrospectives started to appear across news sites following David Frost’s death, I was quick to peruse the accompanying video clips, as if I were a magpie seeking a prize titbit with which to line my nest, a nest within which my final opinion of the journalist and TV presenter could begin to gestate.

For that’s the aim of the ‘career spanning’ article, is it not? Offer the reader — someone who may have no preconceived idea of the merits of such an individual — an easily digestible morsel of generalisation, an insubstantial, introductory aperitif, suitable for the unrefined pallet of even the most fledgling chick?

I would usually baulk at this ‘Buzz Feed’ approach, especially when the subject’s work spans decades, but, incredibly, exceptionally, one of the clips I happened upon managed to encapsulate precisely the qualities of the man, and in little over ten minutes.

Yet, more than that, it displayed exactly how Frost’s skills as an interviewer could unveil a defining characteristic in his interviewee as well, coaxing out from the cracked egg shell, with a gentle tap, the yolk of his subject’s soul, bared for all to see.

The clip is taken from an 1985 interview with the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It concerns a pivotal point in the Falklands War, a conflict in which Thatcher had been widely criticised for attacking and sinking the Belgrano, an Argentine vessel which was later discovered to be posing no immediate threat, sailing, as it was, away from the British fleet.

Watch how Frost remains resolute in the face of the Prime Minister’s deflection, particularly regarding a possible cover up, and at all times is calm, charismatic and polite. At no point does he feel the need to become aggressive in his questioning and despite Thatcher’s best efforts to undermine him, she is the one left with egg on her face.

Remarkably, it all serves to utterly expose the cold-hearted, bludgeoning morality that would come to define Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.

If you want David Frost — or Margaret Thatcher — in a nutshell, then look no further. Here is the explanation for the high regard in which he was held and why her legacy remains that of the most divisive British leader in living memory. Just a few moments TV defines them both. It is compelling viewing…

‘Back to Reality’ — 14 Days Without Twitter (the Search for Self-Knowledge)

How a family holiday, a cult comedy and sexism led to a fortnight without Twitter.

There’s a cult sci-fi comedy show which used to air on the BBC called Red Dwarf. The title’s taken from the name given to a mining vessel marooned in deep space, its rag tag crew of obsessive compulsive android, vain mutant feline, cowardly hologram and lone remaining human, bumble their way from one alien encounter to another, discovering new species, new dimensions and futuristic technologies. It’s like Star Trek but for idiots!

Except that in its finer moments the show isn’t really for idiots at all. It can, in fact, be quite profound. I was recently brought to mind of perhaps its most loved episode, ‘Back to Reality’, in which all crew members hallucinate that, rather than being stranded in an over-sized tin can in the far reaches of the cosmos, they’ve been playing an extremely elaborate form of virtual reality computer game back home on Earth. Not only that but they’ve been playing it badly!

When confronted with what they believe to be reality, they don’t feel relieved nor delighted to have finally returned to Earth — that which they’ve been endlessly striving for —rather they become so depressed and disillusioned with each of their own personal realities that they decide to commit collective suicide. Thankfully, of course, the effects of the hallucinogen wear off just before they manage to do so.

Before journeying on family holiday to the rural wilderness of Dartmoor in the UK county of Devon, I’d been struck by two unrelated tweets which, together with the trolling of female journalists following Caroline Criado-Perez’s successful campaign to install the image of a woman — author Jane Austen — on the Bank of England’s ten pound note, pricked my, until then, unbridled belief in Twitter as a universally good thing.

The first missive — the exact 140 characters of which escape me now — suggested a futility in filling your Twitter feed with the musings of those who share your outlook on life. ‘Does it not somewhat narrow your horizons?’ the tweet suggested. ‘Does it not render Twitter nothing more than an enormous echo chamber?’

The second tweet opined that perhaps for most of us Twitter is tantamount to screaming into an empty pint glass, not only for those sexists venting their fury at successful, unobtainable women but also for those attempting to be creative, share knowledge or add to humanity’s collective understanding (this is a lot to cram into two tweets I grant you but the implication was clear).

After all, the intellectual rigour and wit of Oscar Wilde at his pithiest could easily be lost to the ether were he followed solely by Jedward. More tragically, were he to forget to append the #justsaying hashtag.

These tweets and the cacophony of horrific abuse re-tweeted by the female journalists and writers I follow triggered in me a long unconscious thought: ‘Am I really making any contribution to universal understanding through my tweets or merely adding to the incessant din? Am I just subconsciously patting myself on the back from within my own tiny cyber-clique? Am I, like the worst of the trolls, attempting in vain to dissuade the fear of my own infinite insignificance?’

What a wonderful feeling it was to spend a prolonged period of time without tweeting. Living life, loving my wife, playing with my child, joking with family friends and experiencing the simple pleasures of the countryside in the summertime.

A trip to the zoo, hopping over stepping stones in the river Dart, making sandcastles for the boys, cooking pancakes for breakfast, cricket in the garden and talking. Talking to real, live people…in a room…in a cottage…in the middle of nowhere.

For a while, I thought I’d had an epiphany. I could just forget about writing anything ever again, forget reading, never post another puerile tweet for the rest of my days. Live! Live in tactile reality apart from the digital dissonance of the online community. I could do it. Of course I could do it! I’d gone 14 days, why not 140? Why not forever!?

Those first few tweets on my return from holiday were painful. I detested myself even as I tapped the areas of my phone screen designed to look like keys on a keyboard. In the halcyon Neverland of a summer holiday it was easy to resist the caterwauling. In the monotonous mangle of the daily commute it was impossible to ignore.

I’m unable to quit Twitter, I realise this now. Not only do I have an inherent need to express my opinions, hopefully in a creative and informative way, but I also feel it’s a duty to do so as a human being. To somehow, in some small way at least, attempt to add value, even if it blurs the lines between my ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ reality; even if, ultimately, my thoughts (hopefully not screamed) travel no further than the bottom of the empty pint glass.

The alternative is to leave Twitter to the ignorant — not an option based on the abhorrent sexism currently evident across the site — and therefore admit a total defeat. I suppose, in a manner of speaking, to be a Twitter quitter is to turn ones back on society itself and I, for one, am not ready to indulge in so morose an act as that very nearly undertaken by the crew of Red Dwarf.

Twitter, like Red Dwarf, is for idiots! Except,in its finer moments, it isn’t really for idiots at all.