#138 Reading Regeneration by Pat Barker

Seeing as though my work in progress, ALBERT & MARIE is largely set in the First World War it makes sense to read or listen to the most renowned novels about the period.

Having read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to learn more about the pre-war period and Birdsong because of its links with the tunnellers of the trenches, Regeneration seemed the obvious next step.

Like ALBERT & MARIE, Regeneration is based on a true story, the story of war poet Seigfried Sassoon who was decorated for bravery on the western front. He wrote a ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ in 1917 as a protest against the war which resulted in him being admitted to a military psychiatric hospital where he met another war poet, Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by Sassoon’s work.

First published in 1991, Regeneration was nominated for the Booker Prize and is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland where psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Rivers pioneered treatments of posttraumatic stress disorder during and after World War I and the novel’s title refers to research into “nerve regeneration”.

Barker draws extensively on the writings of First World War poets and W.H.R. Rivers for the book and the main characters are based on historical figures, such as Robert Graves, Alice and Hettie Roper (pseudonyms for Alice Wheeldon and her daughter Hettie).

The book was adapted into a film in 1997.

She went on to write two more books in what is now known as the Regeneration Trilogy – The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995). The latter won the Booker Prize in 1995.

Barker was born to a working-class family in Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England. According to The Times, her mother became pregnant “after a drunken night out while in the Wrens.” In a social climate where illegitimacy was regarded with shame, she told people that the resulting child was her sister, rather than her daughter. They lived with Barker’s grandmother Alice and step-grandfather William, until her mother married and moved out when Barker was seven. Her grandparents ran a fish and chip shop which failed and the family was, she told The Times in 2007, “poor as church mice; we were living on National Assistance – ‘on the pancrack’, as my grandmother called it.”

Her first three novels were never published and, she told The Guardian in 2003, “didn’t deserve to be: I was being a sensitive lady novelist, which is not what I am. There’s an earthiness and bawdiness in my voice.”

Her first published novel was Union Street (1982), which consisted of seven interlinked stories about English working class women whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and violence. It was rejected by publishers for ten years until she sent it to Virago.

Regeneration is an excellent exploration of the trauma of war and its effects. It is very difficult to express the horror of the western front but Barker manages to evoke the unimaginable. She also does an expert job of taking historical records and bringing them alive by mixing historical figures with fictional characters.

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#137 Reading Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis

Imagine if Occupy and Extinction Rebellion actually won.

In Another Now world-famous economist Yanis Varoufakis shows us what such a world would look like. Far from being a fantasy, he describes how it could have come about – and might yet. But would we really want it?

Varoufakis’s boundary-breaking new book confounds expectations of what the good society would look like and reveals the uncomfortable truth about our desire for a better world…

To describe this book as a fictionalised economic treatise would do it a disservice. Varoufakis has used fiction to articulate his ideas much as Robert Tressel did in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and whilst the reader might not empathise with Varoufakis`s characters as much as Tressel`s but the effect is more or less the same – we empathise with the system he is proposing, at least to some extent.

Another Now is essentially a science fiction novel in that it is set in 2025 and relies on a wormhole between universes for the premise to function, which it does reasonably well.

A Greek economist, Varoufakis was the Greek Minister of Finance in 2015 and Another Now explains clearly the system which landed Greece with the financial problems it has suffered as clearly as Tressel explains the money trick in his novel.

Born in Athens, he studied in Essex and Birmingham in the UK where he gained his Phd in economics. After Thatcher`s Government was elected for the third time in 1987, he left the UK and moved to Australia where he taught at the University of Sydney. HIs feelings about Thatcher are explored by the characters in his novel.

After acquiring Australian citizenship, he returned to Greece to lead the doctoral programe at the University of Athens and advised the Greek Prime Minister before moving to the US to teach at the University of Texas in Austin.

In January 2015, Varoufakis was appointed Greek Minister of Finance. He led negotiations with Greece’s creditors during the government-debt crisis. However, he failed to reach an agreement with the European troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) leading to the 2015 bailout referendum. The referendum rejected the troika bailout terms, and the day afterwards Varoufakis resigned as Minister of Finance. Another Now outlines a system in which the Greek debt crisis would never have been possible.

Varoufakis is the author of several books on the European debt crisis, the financial imbalance in the world and game theory. Adults in the Room was made into a feature film in 2019, directed by Costa-Gavras. A Modest Proposal is a set of economic policies aimed at overcoming the euro crisis. Truman Factor features select articles by Varoufakis in English and in Spanish.

The Global Minotaur constructs a historical narrative and metaphor which Varoufakis uses to describe the world economy from the mid-1970s to the 2008 crash and beyond. He argues that the global economy since the 1970s can be viewed as being built around the financing of the twin deficits of the United States – its trade deficit and government deficit. Varoufakis argues that the United States powered the global economy by consuming the exports of the rest of the world, and then the surpluses flowed back to the United States by going to institutions on Wall Street or being used to buy U.S. Treasury debt. He suggests the recycling back to the U.S. happened naturally due to the status of the dollar as the global reserve currency, and because of the profitability of U.S. corporations and returns on Wall Street. However, when the U.S. economy and banking system faltered in 2008, the United States’ ability to consume vast quantities of imports decreased, and investing in Wall Street became a much less inviting prospect, so the system seized up. This explains why the 2008 recession was felt so heavily around the world.

Another Now reminds me of some of the economic ideas in The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver and my own work in progress on the prequel to When the Well Runs Dry. My only reservation is that the world in which his ideas are adopted relies on a series of fortunate successes by activists to succeed. My own premise is that the kind of ideas he proposes will never be adopted until the current system collapses which is what I intend to happen in the prequel.

Give Another Now a go, I was pleasantly surprised how well this economist had used fiction to articulate in simple terms, very complicated concepts.

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#136 Reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

My work in progress, ALBERT & MARIE, is not only set in World War One but one of the main characters, Albert, becomes a tunneller in the Royal Engineers.

Faulks’ father was awarded the Military Cross and later became a solicitor and circuit judge. His brother Edward Faulks, Baron Faulks QC, a barrister, became a Conservative Government Minister and his uncle was Sir Neville Faulks, a High Court judge. He read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and participated in University Challenge, a British quiz programme. After graduating, Faulks worked as a teacher at a private school in Camden Town, and then as a journalist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. He became the first literary editor of The Independent in 1986 and deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday in 1989. In 1991 he left The Independent. He wrote for various newspapers as a freelancer for the next ten years. Following the success of Birdsong (1993), Faulks quit journalism to write full-time. He has since published eight novels, the most recent being A Possible Life (2012), Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015) and Paris Echo (2018). Faulks was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1993 and appointed CBE for services to literature in 2002.

My father was a motor mechanic. My sister works for a community arts project and my Uncle ran an off-licence (liquor store). I studied for a Higher National Diploma at Dorset Institute of Higher Education before it became Bournemouth University and then completed my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Open University while I worked at an environmental charity and as a teacher in Brazil. I’ve worked in McDonalds, as a copywriter, a project manager creating websites when they were new, working in schools with an environmental charity and taught Drama in Brazil. I have published five novels and four novellas but my talents have yet to be recognised by the Royal Society of Literature or Her Majesty the Queen.

I think the differences in our backgrounds, education and employment are reflected in the protagonists we have created in our novels. Birdsong begins in 1910 when Stephen Wraysford visits and lives with René Azaire, his wife Isabelle and their children in Amiens, France. Stephen was an orphan who was rescued by a benefactor who wanted nothing to do with him. Although Stephen’s origins were poor and misfortunate, he enjoyed the benefits of a good education and has obtained a position in the textile industry which has enabled him to travel to France on industrial research.

My character is based on a real person, my Great Uncle Albert, though my knowledge of his life is so limited that the majority of his experiences, like Faulks’ Stephen, are based on the testimonies of World War One veterans who might have been in a similar position to our characters.

Uncle Albert was a miner in County Durham who signed up with the Yorkshire Light Infantry but was soon transferred to the Royal Engineers as the demand for tunnellers increased. Albert was a pioneer, the Royal Engineers equivalent of a private, while Stephen was a lieutenant.

Both Samuel West, who narrates the audiobook of Birdsong and Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen in the BBC mini series managed to create a young character who is incredibly posh and irreversibly changed by the horrors of war.

Both Faulks and I have deliberately avoided research with secondary documents, such as historical monographs, instead focusing on veteran interviews and period primary sources. In November 1988 he went on a trip to Flanders with half a dozen old soldiers in their 90s whereas I have had to rely on interviews given my soldiers to the Imperial War Museum or memoirs written soon after the events, untarnished by the Second World War.

Faulks felt that the published version of Birdsong did not fully do justice to the experience of war: it did not provide readers with “a full appreciation of the soldiers’ physical experience; and, perhaps more importantly, a philosophical understanding of what it meant to be part of the first genocidal event of the century – the one that made the others imaginable”.

I have to admit that I found the romance at the beginning of Birdsong a little irritating as I did with Stephen’s infatuation with Isabelle throughout the book. However, His descriptions of the scenes in the tunnels and the trenches more than makes up for it.

The BBC mini-series makes good use of cross cutting so that the romantic first section is distributed more evenly through the episodes. As expected, the screenwriters have taken liberties with the book but unlike some adaptations, in this case I think they have done a good job.

Birdsong is right up there with Atonement and the Regeneration Trilogy as one of the classic war stories.

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#135 Reading Space Team by Barry Hutchison

The cover of Space Team by Barry J Hutchison

The galaxy just called for help. Unfortunately, it dialed the wrong number.

Small-time conman, Cal Carver, is having a bad day. Imprisoned and forced to share a cell with a cannibalistic serial killer, Cal thinks things can’t possibly get any worse.

He is wrong.

It’s not until two-thirds of the human race is wiped out and Cal is mistakenly abducted by aliens that his day really starts to go downhill.

Whisked across the galaxy, Cal is thrown into a team of some of the sector’s most notorious villains and scumbags. Their mission should be simple enough, but as one screw-up leads to another, they find themselves in a frantic battle to save an entire alien civilization – and its god – from total annihilation.

Featuring epic space battles, alien gangsters, and several thousand flying Tobey Maguires, Space Teamis the first book in the internationally bestselling series by award-winning author, Barry J. Hutchison, and is perfect for fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide and Guardians of the Galaxy.

I had to use his blurb to describe the first book in the series because I don’t think I would have done it justice. I really really enjoyed listening to this on Audible, I thought the high joke rate per paragraph was going to get annoying, but it didn’t. This isn’t some teenager shoving as many gags into a story as possible, this is a well-crafted story with well-developed characters, a lovely narrative arc, lots of lovely devices to get lots of swearing in the dialogue without actually swearing at all and the ability to pick holes in it’s own plot and answer it before the pedants get started.

If I had enough time I would plough through all twelve books in the series right now but instead I have settled for downloading the book of short stories which comes free when you sign up to his email list.

He does have two other series: Dan Deadman which, judging by the cover, is comic noir space detective, and Sidekicks, which looks hilarious:

When sworn protectors of Earth, the Justice Platoon, are all horribly killed, their former arch-enemies come crawling out of the woodwork. Outnumbered, outgunned, and out of options, the US Government has no choice but to activate the Sidekicks Initiative, dragging the Platoon’s middle-aged ex-sidekicks out of retirement.

In 2010, HarperCollins Children’s Books published his Invisible Fiends horror series about a boy whose childhood imaginary friend comes back when he’s a teenager and tries to kill him. It went on to win some prizes, sell to some foreign countries, and marked the start of his professional writing career.

Now he’s had around 70 books published, all aimed at children or teenagers. He’s written for publishers such as Penguin Random House, Nosy Crow, Egmont, Stripes and Little, Brown. He’s written 30+ episodes of children’s comedy for CITV, and regularly contributes to comics like The Beano.

If you like the Mastery of the Stars series, then you’ll love Space Team, I’ll certainly be reading more of this shizz.

p.s. anyone recognise the ship?

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#134 The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Robert Tressell, born Robert Noonan in Dublin, Ireland, emigrated to South Africa where he became skilled as a signwriter. In 1901, he moved back to England and lived in Hastings on which the fictional town in his novel is based. He had tuberculosis which eventually killed him in 1911 and he took the pen name Tressell from the tables used by signwriters and house painters.

The novel was not published until after his death in an abridged edition in 1914 and a further abridged edition in 1918 which truncated its political polemic. An unabridged version did not appear until 1955.

Tressell shows in vivid detail, the effects of capitalism on the working classes of that period and although great steps forward have been made since that time such as a living wage, a National Health Service and a welfare state, many of the themes of corruption and the willingness of the masses to be exploited so blatently by those in power remain frighteningly relevant today.

Many of the recommendations Tressell suggests in the book may seem outdated following the failure of collectivism in the Soviet and Chinese agricultural policies but his basic principles of the failure of money to provide for an equitable society and the ridiculousness of the principle of trickle-down economics are lessons well worth listening to.

He ironically names the worker philanthropists because they enrich their employers through their labours while receiving the meanest of rewards from businessmen who remorselessly cheat them.

One of the greatest moments in the book is when the protagonist attempts to explain the ‘Money Trick’ to his colleagues:

‘Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labour.’

‘Prove it,’ said Crass.

Owen slowly folded up the piece of newspaper he had been reading and put it into his pocket.

‘All right,’ he replied. ‘I’ll show you how the Great Money Trick is worked.’

Owen opened his dinner basket and took from it two slices of bread but as these were not sufficient, he requested that anyone who had some bread left would give it to him. They gave him several pieces, which he placed in a heap on a clean piece of paper, and, having borrowed the pocket knives they used to cut and eat their dinners with from Easton, Harlow and Philpot, he addressed them as follows:

‘These pieces of bread represent the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind; they were not made by any human being, but were created by the Great Spirit for the benefit and sustenance of all, the same as were the air and the light of the sun.’

… ‘Now,’ continued Owen, ‘I am a capitalist; or, rather, I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me. It does not matter for our present argument how I obtained possession of them, or whether I have any real right to them; the only thing that matters now is the admitted fact that all the raw materials which are necessary for the production of the necessaries of life are now the property of the Landlord and Capitalist class. I am that class: all these raw materials belong to me.’

… ‘Now you three represent the Working Class: you have nothing – and for my part, although I have all these raw materials, they are of no use to me – what I need is – the things that can be made out of these raw materials by Work: but as I am too lazy to work myself, I have invented the Money Trick to make you work for me. But first I must explain that I possess something else beside the raw materials. These three knives represent – all the machinery of production; the factories, tools, railways, and so forth, without which the necessaries of life cannot be produced in abundance. And these three coins’ – taking three halfpennies from his pocket – ‘represent my Money Capital.’

‘But before we go any further,’ said Owen, interrupting himself, ‘it is most important that you remember that I am not supposed to be merely “a” capitalist. I represent the whole Capitalist Class. You are not supposed to be just three workers – you represent the whole Working Class.’

… Owen proceeded to cut up one of the slices of bread into a number of little square blocks.

‘These represent the things which are produced by labour, aided by machinery, from the raw materials. We will suppose that three of these blocks represent – a week’s work. We will suppose that a week’s work is worth – one pound: and we will suppose that each of these ha’pennies is a sovereign. …

‘Now this is the way the trick works -’

… Owen now addressed himself to the working classes as represented by Philpot, Harlow and Easton.

‘You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week’s work is – you must each produce three of these square blocks. For doing this work you will each receive your wages; the money will be your own, to do as you like with, and the things you produce will of course be mine, to do as I like with. You will each take one of these machines and as soon as you have done a week’s work, you shall have your money.’

The Working Classes accordingly set to work, and the Capitalist class sat down and watched them. As soon as they had finished, they passed the nine little blocks to Owen, who placed them on a piece of paper by his side and paid the workers their wages.

‘These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can’t live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is – one pound each.’

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms. They each bought back and at once consumed one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week’s work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of the things produced by the labour of the others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital, for he still possessed the three pounds in money and in addition four pounds worth of goods. As for the working classes, Philpot, Harlow and Easton, having each consumed the pound’s worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work – they had nothing.

This process was repeated several times: for each week’s work the producers were paid their wages. They kept on working and spending all their earnings. The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pile of wealth continually increased. In a little while – reckoning the little squares at their market value of one pound each – he was worth about one hundred pounds, and the working classes were still in the same condition as when they began, and were still tearing into their work as if their lives depended upon it.

After a while the rest of the crowd began to laugh, and their merriment increased when the kind-hearted capitalist, just after having sold a pound’s worth of necessaries to each of his workers, suddenly took their tools – the Machinery of Production – the knives away from them, and informed them that as owing to Over Production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.

‘Well, and what the bloody ‘ell are we to do now?’ demanded Philpot.

‘That’s not my business,’ replied the kind-hearted capitalist. ‘I’ve paid you your wages, and provided you with Plenty of Work for a long time past. I have no more work for you to do at present. Come round again in a few months’ time and I’ll see what I can do for you.’

‘But what about the necessaries of life?’ demanded Harlow. ‘We must have something to eat.’

‘Of course you must,’ replied the capitalist, affably; ‘and I shall be very pleased to sell you some.’

‘But we ain’t got no bloody money!’

‘Well, you can’t expect me to give you my goods for nothing! You didn’t work for me for nothing, you know. I paid you for your work and you should have saved something: you should have been thrifty like me. Look how I have got on by being thrifty!’

The unemployed looked blankly at each other, but the rest of the crowd only laughed; and then the three unemployed began to abuse the kind-hearted Capitalist, demanding that he should give them some of the necessaries of life that he had piled up in his warehouses, or to be allowed to work and produce some more for their own needs; and even threatened to take some of the things by force if he did not comply with their demands. But the kind-hearted Capitalist told them not to be insolent, and spoke to them about honesty, and said if they were not careful he would have their faces battered in for them by the police, or if necessary he would call out the military and have them shot down like dogs, the same as he had done before at Featherstone and Belfast.

Tressell outlined in reasonable detail how he envisaged a socialist society might work. This was heavily reliant on the benefits of technology which many believed would make life easier for humanity. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that as a result of technological advancement we would only need to work a 15 hour week. This uptopian dream did not come about because of the resurgence of a hard-edged version of capitalism, variously referred to as neoliberalism, Thatcherism and the Washington Consensus which ensured that the benefits of technology were used to get more production from the workers rather than the benefits being enjoyed by the workers themselves.

I intend to use Tressell’s vision as a model for Freetown in the upcoming prequel and sequel to my near future dystopian novel When the Well Runs Dry. Tressell’s vision never came about because the money system always allowed greed to overide any efforts for a more equitable society. But if the money system collapses completely then an equitable socialist solution might be a viable alternative.

You can read Tressell’s ideas now but if you want to see my interpretation you’ll have to wait until I release the prequel to When the Well Runs Dry, hopefully before the end of the year.

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#133 Was Jesus a socialist?

statue of jesus

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The HuffPost thinks so. They say Jesus’ ideas inspired many prominent socialists and critics of capitalism including Pope Francis who has has consistently criticized the human and spiritual damage caused by global capitalism, widening inequality, and corporate sweatshops.

When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy advising him regarding his responsibilities his ministry in Ephesus, he wrote that we brought nothing into the world and can carry nothing out but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these. Those who want to be rich, however, fall into temptation and become ensnared by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith.

Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that if anyone teaches another doctrine and disagrees with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and with godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. Instead, he has an unhealthy interest in controversies and semantics, out of which come envy, strife, abusive talk, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind who are devoid of the truth. These men regard godliness as a means of gain.

Matthew’s Gospel reports Jesus as saying: Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or a thirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, In as much as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

This lengthy passage suggests that it is the duty of a christian society to feed the hungry, home the homeless, support the poor, the sick and and those who have committed crimes. It suggests a welfare state, a comprehensive health service, universal and free at the point of delivery—a health service based on clinical need, not ability to pay, and a prison system based on the rehabilitation of criminals.

Earlier in the gospel, during the sermon on the mount, Jesus said: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. So why do the world’s richest 1 percent own twice as much as bottom 90 percent?

In John’s first letter he warns not to love the world or anything in the world and Matthew reports Jesus as telling his disciples it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Yet so many self-styled ‘Followers’ of Christ have made the accumulation of money the principal business of their lives.

In 2016, Pope Francis blamed the “god of money” for the extremist violence that is taking place around the world. A ruthless global economy, he argued, leads marginalized people to violence. In 2013 he attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny,” criticized the “idolatry of money,” and urged politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” he wrote.

The HuffPost reports that few Americans call themselves socialists, but many of them share socialists’ critiques of American-style capitalism, including the widening gap between the rich and the rest, the greed of the super-rich, the undue influence of Wall Street and big business in politics, and the persistence of widespread poverty and hunger in our affluent society.

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says in Matthew 6:24. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

In Luke 12:15, Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”

Bertell Ollman argued that socialism is practical Christianity: “Jesus’ life, as well as his teachings, was a model of concern for his fellow human beings. Though poor in material things, he and his disciples shared what they had with all about them. For centuries afterwards, those who called themselves Christians were most noteworthy for the cooperative fellowship that characterized the community in which Jesus lived.”

“Next time someone calls you a socialist for being a progressive,” wrote Ivonne Rovira, a public school teacher, mom and research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. “Here’s what to do: make your face light up and say, ‘Thank you! I try to be a good Christian!’”

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#132 Getting in shape during the lockdown

apple norms size standards

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Don’t get me wrong, I was already obese before the lock-down with a body mass index (BMI) of 31.8. The BMI is a convenient rule of thumb used to broadly categorise a person as underweightnormal weightoverweight, or obese based on tissue mass (muscle, fat, and bone) and height. Commonly accepted BMI ranges are underweight (under 18.5 kg/m2), normal weight (18.5 to 25), overweight (25 to 30), and obese (over 30).

Half-way through the lock-down, the lack of activity and ready availability of beer meant that I put on 7kg (15lbs), going from 92kgs (200lbs) to 99kgs (218lbs) and raised my BMI to 34.4.

To get a healthy BMI I would need to lose 27kgs (59lbs). You can check your own BMI at the NHS website. It told me that losing and keeping off 5% of my weight can have health benefits, such as lowering my blood pressure and reducing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Healthy diet and exercise also helps to improve mental health which I wrote about last month

Given that obesity is the top underlying conditions for severe Covid-19 and even mild obesity could put a person at risk of developing severe COVID-19 and dying it seemed like a good time to start. The NHS site told me that, over time, I should work towards achieving a healthier weight and that if I’m concerned about my weight I should speak to my doctor. It suggested a recommended daily calorie intake of 1881 – 2418 kcal and to lose 1-2lbs a week stick to the lower end of the range.

In truth, I had already been doing some exercise using a couch to 5km app. I don’t download the NHS podcasts, instead I downloaded one by App Symphony which I have been very pleased with.

The NHS has a 12-week weight loss plan and one of the first things I needed to do was start counting my calories.  I created a spreadsheet so that I could include all the information the programme was asking me to record on their food and activity chart.

They also have a change4life programme which contains healthy recipes of all kinds.  At the end of the first week I had already lost 2kg (4lbs) and another 2kg by Tuesday of the following week.

In week 3, I started alternating my aerobic couch to 5km activity with strength and flexibility exercises, the aim being to do at least 150 minutes of activity a week. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the incredible NHS has a 5-week strength and flexibility plan in which you can download podcasts which start at a very basic level and work their way up.

By the end of week 3, I had lost another 1kg, meaning a loss of 5kg in three weeks. I am in the middle of week 4 and am looking forward to seeing how much progress I have made. Hopefully, I will be close to the weight I was at the start of the lockdown and can continue to lose weight beyond that.

The NHS also recommend that you measure your waist. They say that measuring your waist is a good way to check you’re not carrying too much fat around your stomach, which can raise your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. You can have a healthy BMI and still have excess tummy fat, meaning you’re still at risk of developing these conditions. To measure your waist:

  1. Find the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips.
  2. Wrap a tape measure around your waist midway between these points.
  3. Breathe out naturally before taking the measurement.

Regardless of your height or BMI, you should try to lose weight if your waist is:

  • 94cm (37ins) or more for men
  • 80cm (31.5ins) or more for women

You’re at very high risk and should contact a GP if your waist is:

  • 102cm (40ins) or more for men
  • 88cm (34ins) or more for women

Another benefit of this new diet is that I am also moderating my drinking more.  A pint of beer is generally around 200 calories and 2 to 3 units of alcohol, a gin with slimline tonic is 1 unit of alcohol and only around 55 calories depending on the gin.

To keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level men and women should not exceed 14 units a week and to spread that amount over three or four days. This equates to two units a day over seven days which means a pint of beer a day or two gin and tonics a day. I tend to find I am a little more thirsty than this so I have devised a system. Now, I only add 10ml of gin to my gin and tonic rather than the standard 25ml or random bottle tip. This means I can drink 5 gin and tonics at a cost of only 110 calories and 2 units a day, keeping me within both limits.

I’ll try to keep you up to dates with my progress and would love to hear your lock-down weight loss stories.

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#131 Environmental consequences of covid-19

bird s eye view of woodpile

Photo by Pok Rie on Pexels.com

Much has been said about the cleanliness of Venetian canals, of Indian skies and wildlife wandering through lockdowned towns. There is little doubt that global carbon emissions have declined during the pandemic. The International Energy Agency, a policy advisory group to 30 member countries, projects that global carbon emissions are set to fall by 8%, or levels the world hasn’t seen for a decade.

“This may sound small at first, but it is the largest drop since World War II, as emissions have generally increased year-over-year, even during recessions,” Ankur Desai, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told USA TODAY.

However, this is not enough to counter the long term effects of decades of greenhouse gas emissions.

The current drop in emissions is also not yet detectable in total carbon dioxide concentrations, according to Benjamin Houlton, a professor of environmental science at University of California, Davis. “The challenge is that carbon dioxide has an average lifespan of around 100 years in the atmosphere,” he told USA TODAY.

Emissions would need to drop by more than 25% to see a total drop in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and thus slow an annual global rise in temperatures, Houlton explained.

Despite these falls in carbon emissions around the world, Brazil is bucking the trend. The carbon emitted in 2020 due to deforestation could increase by 50% in relation to 2018 levels. So while the rest of the world is anticipating a net reduction of 6%, Brazil could see an increase of 10%.

Only today, the BBC reported that up to one fifth of of Brazilian soya exports to the European Union could be contaminated by illegal deforestation. Researchers discovered that 2% of properties were responsible for 62% of illegal deforestation.

“Without knowing it, we’re eating meat and dairy products from animals fed on soy grown on deforested land in Brazil,” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF-UK. “We need to stop importing habitat destruction.”

The research, published in Science magazine, also revealed that European purchases of Brazilian soybeans may have been indirectly responsible for 58.3 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions between 2009 and 2017 from both legal and illegal deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado regions.

Tragically, the Brazilian Government reacted to the release of the June deforestation figures by sacking an official at the national space agency Inpe whose department is responsible for satellite monitoring of the Amazon rainforest. Lubia Vinhas was the general-coordinator of Brazilian space agency Inpe’s Earth Observation Institute, which is an umbrella for divisions that monitor the Amazon and panels to debate climate change with civil society organisations. It’s unclear whether the removal of Vinhas from her position was connected to the data. Her subordinate who heads the division directly overseeing satellite monitoring of Amazon deforestation remains employed. Inpe said in a statement posted to its website Monday night that the change was part of a shake-up at the agency to improve synergies.

Inpe figures published on Friday showed 400 square miles (1,034 square kilometers) of deforestation in the Amazon in June (two thirds the size of London and four fifths the size of New York City), a new record the month since data started being gathered in 2015. So, next time you reach for a burger, just remember that the cow you are eating might have been fed on soya grown on land illegally deforested.


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#130 Struggling with mental health

therapist comforting patient

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

In these unusual times, the stresses and strains of everyday life, which can seem overwhelming at the best of times,  can be amplified by the pressures of social isolation. A  pandemic raises fears for the health of oneself and others as well as financial worries for those for whom the future of their employment or businesses is unsure.

These stresses can manifest themselves in different sleeping or eating habits as well as negative implications for both physical and mental wellbeing which, in turn, can result in increased use of tobacco or alcohol.

If you feel that you are facing a crisis then you should not hesitate to seek help. In the US, the CDC has a list of places you can turn to for help and in the UK, the NHS Every Mind Matters site has lots of useful advice including tips if you are worried about coronavirus, how to sleep better, looking after children and young people, working and living at home and what to do if you feel lonely. You can even create a mind plan to help you deal with stress and anxiety.

Our brains rely on four chemicals for happiness: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphin.

Dopamine gives us determination to accomplish goals, desires and needs. Deficiency can lead to procrastination, low self-esteem, low energy or fatigue, an inability to focus, feelings of anxiety and hopelessness and mood swings. Tactics to deal with this deficiency could include meditation, a daily to-do list, long-term goals, foods rich in L-tyrosine such as cheese, soybeans, beef, lamb, pork, fish, chicken, nuts, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole-grain, exercise or taking up creative activities such as writing, music or art.

Oxytocin gives us a feeling of trust and motivates us to build and sustain relationships. A deficiency can result in us feeling lonely or stressed with low energy or fatigue, becoming disconnected from relationships or suffering anxiety or insomnia.  This can be alleviated by physical touch, socialising, massage, acupuncture, listening to music, exercise, cold showers or meditation.

Serotonin helps us to feel significant and gives us a calm form of accepting ourselves with those around us. A deficiency can lead to low self-esteem, over sensitivity, anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, a feeling of hopelessness, social phobia, obsessive/compulsion and insomnia. The best ways to build levels of serotonin are exercise, cold showers, sunlight and massage.

Endorphin releases a brief euphoria to mask physical pain and can alleviate anxiety and depression. A deficiency can lead to anxiety and depression, mood swings, aches and pains, insomnia and impulsive behaviour. The best remedies and laughter or crying, creating music or art, eating dark chocolate or spicy foods, exercise, stretching, massage and meditation.

If you suspect you may be suffering from depression you might want to complete this patient health questionnaire which helps medical professionals to diagnose if a patient is suffering from mental health issues. The questionnaire will give you a Depression Severity: 0-4 none, 5-9 mild, 10-14 moderate, 15-19 moderately severe, 20-27 severe. Even if you feel you have a mild or moderate depression then you should consider contacting a medical professional such as a doctor, counsellor or psychologist or at the very least find someone with whom you can share your concerns.

Likewise, there is a general anxiety disorder assessment which uses a similar questionnaire to identify mild, moderate and severe anxiety. If you have a score of more than 10 then further evaluation is recommended and you should speak with a medical professional.

In situations when exercise, meditation, healthy diet, and psychologists seem to make no difference then a psychiatrist may be able to prescribe medication to help your brain to absorb the chemicals above. Sometimes we genetically inherit and inability to use the chemicals that help us to be happy.

For example, Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a widely used type of antidepressant. They’re mainly prescribed to treat depression, particularly persistent or severe cases, and are often used in combination with a talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

It’s thought that SSRIs work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a messenger chemical that carries signals between nerve cells in the brain). It’s thought to have a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep.

After carrying a message, serotonin is usually reabsorbed by the nerve cells (known as “reuptake”). SSRIs work by blocking (“inhibiting”) reuptake, meaning more serotonin is available to pass further messages between nearby nerve cells.

It would be too simplistic to say that depression and related mental health conditions are caused by low serotonin levels, but a rise in serotonin levels can improve symptoms and make people more responsive to other types of treatment, such as CBT.

However you are feeling at the moment, you can be sure you are not alone, there are millions of people around the world who are feeling the same way. Do not be afraid of reaching out for help because there is plenty of help available. If you suspect a friend or family might benefit from seeking help then don’t be shy in reaching out to them.

A problem shared is a problem halved.

Stay safe and take care

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#129 Interview with Sam Fires, author of Dog Meat

The Heaps are massive junkyards containing the old world’s scrap and rubbish, which is now a valuable commodity. The heaps are protected by brainwashed children known as ‘heap sharks’ and are ruled over by “Heap Lords” with an iron fist. The “Heap Sharks” are very violent pawns and you would not want to fall into their hands. When the world ended, the Heaps contained mankind’s last resources. They are impenetrable, but young brothers Olly and Israel survive as scavengers and plan on robbing one. The riches inside mean nothing less than the boys’ survival. They’ll need to outwit and defeat the savage Heap Sharks if they are to have a chance and not get themselves captured in the process. The end of the world brings with it a grotesque Darwinian doctrine, survival of the fittest as man eats dog is the new law now. Can the brothers make it out of the Heaps in one piece—and what of their father’s violent death?

Dog Meat is the debut Post-apocalyptic/dystopian novella by Sam Fires. Book 2 ‘Shark Tactics’ and Book 3 ‘Sharks’ Fury’ are being released on 22 June.

Sam lives and works in the UK as a lawyer and says she has always loved books: “I’ve always enjoyed psychological thrillers and books with a psychological element to them but it is only recently I discovered I love post-apoc and dystopian fiction and then the ideas for books started flowing.”

She is currently working on new post-apoc series: “After the world was hit by a virus (which mutated into several lethal strains) that decimated the population we are now living under Martial law, the protagonist is an ex-cop who is being hunted down under orders of the President, and we follow his journey as he tries to escape their clutches and at the same time using his detective skills to find out why he is the target of their interest.”

Her secret ambition (and it is secret as she hasn’t told anyone yet about her interest in writing and being an author) is to be able to be a full-time author and travel the world writing (once lockdown is over of course).

Dog Meat is available on Amazon

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