Writing the Uncanny

I saw a ghost, once. A friend in Edinburgh wants me to tell him all about it, but I’m not sure I can. The last time I tried that, talking to other friends in an arty professional flat in Stockbridge, and forgetting to psychologise the psychic, a big black cat jumped through the window and scared the living daylights out of them. I’d presumed the cat was theirs – and I’d forgotten that White British rationalist urbanites don’t believe in ghosts. At least not officially.

I’m White too and, though I prefer more rural locations, I’ve also lived in cities. But I’m allowed to believe in the spectral side of life for two reasons: I’m religious and I’m a writer. The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries make some mention of both monotheist and polytheist faiths and of Buddhism – which, arguably, is neither. But, as well as the relationships and adventures of a group of friends, they mostly dwell on the uncanny.

It’s a difficult subject to write about without being constrained by genre expectations: if you write about vaguely angelic inspiration, it’s Inspirational; if the focus is on getting what you deserve from The Universe, it’s New Age; if evil spirits are involved it’s either Evangelical Christian or Occult (some would say they’re the same thing); if it’s girlpower with candles and pentacles, it’s Wicca; fairies, it’s Folklore; dragons is Fantasy; and teen wizardry is (now) a knock-off of a certain very successful series of books and films.

Andre Norton, usually classified as a Science Fiction & Fantasy writer, has a character with the gift of Unasked Sight. My grandmother’s first language was Scottish Gaelic and I grew up familiar with this kind of (Second) Sight that is a well-known and rarely-mentioned phenomenon in the Gàidhealtach, even in its lowland diaspora. The immediacy, urgency and evidential impossibility of this gift make it a good topic for a storyteller and it continually disrupts the otherwise ordered existence of my protagonist.

But I didn’t want to transport Bruno to another realm. I wasn’t interested in my characters going through some portal (a wardrobe or a wall in a train station) from a presumed central location of unproblematic normality (such as the English shires surrounding London, or the city itself) or inhabiting a place in a parallel universe (such as another Oxford or alternative Southern California) where vampires and werewolves and witches exist among us – unseen by those without the power or the courage to discern their existence.

I’m interested in the uncanny as experienced, today, in Scotland. Rarely-mentioned and well-known. With this, reserved, attitude, the Scottish culture of the uncanny occupies a middle place between the cool Anglo-Saxon scepticism of the English (so, no, I don’t include the Cornish, the Cumbrian or the Manx) and the entertaining self-conscious blarney of the Irish.

Narration in the first person is the literary equivalent of the hand-held camera. There are no panoramic establishing shots, instant cuts to another simultaneous location or smooth travelling transitions but, as well as the already-limited point-of-view of the protagonist, writing (almost exclusively) this way enables me to use the altered perspectives of anxiety, dream, drugs, drunkenness, euphoria, hypnosis, memory, sadness, tiredness, trance and vision. So there are already many explanations of the phenomena experienced by the characters. I feel it’s important not to force the reader into accepting a particular one.

This last point, I will admit, I got from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Always give them the ‘gas leak’ explanation. Otherwise they may either feel manipulated – or simply assume that, whatever world you’re writing about, it isn’t this one. So, when I write about the vibes or astrology or tarot, this form of non-local perception or mnemonic sequencing can be interpreted as coincidence, or an individual’s free-floating anxiety; telekinesis or spectral/ elemental phenomena witnessed by more than one person can similarly be dismissed as mass hysteria – if enough pressure is on the group at that time.

Even if such explanations are too far-fetched, the indulgent rationalist, if suitably entertained rather than preached at, will read the uncanny as magical realism – transported from its presumed home in steamy Latin America (even though the maestra of this genre, Isabel Allende, has written many of her novels while living in the USA) to rainy Scotland. Reading the adventures of Bruno and his friends might not result in seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden (especially if it’s raining) but it might make the reader wonder whether there are more things in heaven and earth than have ever entered into their rationalist religion or philosophy.

Tricks of the Mind, by Alan Ahrens-McManus, is free on Smashwords (where the whole series is available in various eBook formats) and – like The Lovers, Shades of the Sun, Qismet, Tìr nam Bàn and Transits of Terror – is also in print and Kindle on Amazon and other online retailers.  The Marrying Maiden, seventh in the series, should be out in September.

Pixie hat

Photo, Pixie hat in garden, ©Alan McManus, 2019. Use permitted with link to this post.  



‘Sister Act’ at Cumbernauld Theatre

Catherine MacKenzie gave us a wonderfully brassy brunette Deloris Van Cartier in Cumbernauld Musical Theatre’s production of Sister Act this week; she sashayed about the stage and belted out those numbers like a pro. So Julie Cassells had a challenge in playing Mother Superior: too strict and she’d lose the sympathy of the audience; too laid-back and she’d lose her authority over the nuns. It was a challenge she rose to admirably and her compassion, her fear and her vulnerability came through especially as she sung her moving confession: I Haven’t got a Prayer.

‘But to sing is to pray twice’, as St Augustine of Hippo reminds us, and from the moment Iain Fraser the Front of House Manager (presumably) asked us to turn off our mobile phones and added “can I have an AMEN?” we were all down with Jesus – and up on our feet to give a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

Indeed the singing was wonderful (slightly muffled sometimes by the volume of the music in the first half, it’s true) with the very well-cast holy trio of Srs M. Robert, Patrick & Lazarus (Christine Duncan, Amanda Letarte & Marie Jo McCrossan) in hilarious character counterpoint.

The unholy trio of crooks, Joey, TJ & Pablo (Alan Brown, Christopher Costello & Gerard Kane) had us in stitches with their ‘what women want’ scene as they each in turn tried out the effect of their varied manly attractions on the audience in the fond hope of seducing the Sisters.

Special commendation to Gerard Kane for his word-perfect Spanish which he confessed afterwards he didn’t speak before rehearsals and basically just took at run at it. Similarly to the Sisters for their chanted and sung Latin. My Mum can remember the Latin Mass and we didn’t hear a wrong word.

Yes, on the Catholic side, there were the usual tiny costume errors. Only dedicated followers of Madonna hang rosaries round their necks rather than from their belts (and not from the end of the cord, which should have three knots in it, either) and the priest’s garment over his soutane was more Southern Baptist choir than RC cotta or chasuble. However Jan Letarte’s concept of the colourful cascading scapula for the Sisters was inspired and I liked the kitten heels too – apparently plain black shoes but with that little bit of sass for dancing in.

David Campbell’s Curtis Jackson (erstwhile beau of Dolores) was nicely nasty (and has a great voice) and Andrew Davidson’s Monsignor O’Hara played up the pragmatic priest even more than in the movie – which in these days of failing parishes is very topical – and added more complications to the peace of the convent than those brought by Dolores at the insistence of Lt. Eddie Souther. Keiran Butler brought his handsome burly charm to this part, which was expected from the movie, what took me by surprise was the poignant scene of hopeless homeless people shuffle-dancing around him as he was painfully aware of his inadequacy to help them all.

But help there was aplenty in this production and all the supporting parts did their bit very well indeed – and evidently enjoyed it!

Full marks to Producer Fraser Morrison, Musical Director Ian Monteith-Mathie and Choreographer Amanda Letarte (also onstage) also to the orchestra, and Stage Crew under Frank Kerr. I especially noted the elegance of the Sisters simply processing on and off with benches, and the communal table being left to our imagination. Other points I admired were Kieran Fitzpatrick’s timing of the radio (on and off several times) to the split-second, and Chris Combe’s evocative use of lighting when Dolores is pulled between the siren voices of the goodtime girls and the nun’s chorus. At one point her face turns green (okay I did think of Wicked momentarily) but it made me wonder about envy and the pursuit of happiness.

Last but not least, Front of House staff! My mother is ages with the Queen and I was touched by the kind consideration of the ushers, and being able to pre-order interval drinks was really helpful too. Thank-you Cumbernauld Musical Theatre and thank-you Cumbernauld Theatre for a really enjoyable evening out!


(Image from Cumbernauld Theatre website)


Parents, Protest and the Press

Those naughty Muslims have been at it again – not being nice – not like us Brits! Was basically the message (some of it subliminal) in the online and broadsheet reports about parents in Birmingham protesting outside a school where 98% of the pupils are Muslim and the assistant headmaster has implemented a controversial LGBT education programme. I chose the word ‘education’ because that’s what schools are supposed to be for. Some have called it an ‘inclusion programme’.

As usual with eye-catching headlines, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Firstly, the assistant headmaster. Billed as ‘a gay man’ (as if sexuality has anything to do with being a good teacher or manager) and therefore, in England, in 2019, supposedly deserving for that reason of our sympathy. Unlike the parents. They’re not gay, they’re just Muslim. You don’t get as many points for that in LGBT stories (unless you’re being supportive of inclusion programmes, in which case you get double). In this story, they don’t get any points at all. Not even for being parents. Especially not for being parents. Parents (that don’t support the programme) in this story, like Muslims, are bad. They get slammed by OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] says The Birmingham Post. Null points. Not nice! Just not British! (Actually almost everyone gets ‘slammed by OFSTED’ at some point, it seems, as I found when I looked up the story. I really don’t know what else they find time to do!)

Anyway, the assistant headmaster. Who had to leave his last school. Cos of the naughty Muslims. Christians. Parents. Whatever. Not with the programme. Bad people. Cos he was gay. Well, not cos he was gay. Cos he said he was gay. Openly. As opposed to closedly. Well, cos he said it was okay to be gay. Well, cos he pushed the programme. Or another programme. Similar. Along with some of his books. And others. Reports are confused.

Let’s look at some of those books, shall we? The ones in the programme. Lovely, aren’t they? Choice, rainbows, find who you really are, be who you want, yes you can! Dogs can do ballet too! Boys can be princesses. And you can start as young as you like! Nothing wrong with all that, is there?

Of course not. So what are the parents protesting about then? Let’s find out, from the two mothers of schoolkids who are interviewed. In an edited video Fatima Shah explains the protest and (from the same source) here’s Mariam Ahmed:

“Protester Mariam Ahmed, whose four-year-old daughter attends the school, has organised a petition against the No Outsiders project.

She said yesterday: ‘What they are teaching is not right, they are too young. There are nine parts of the Act and they only seem to be focusing on one, homosexuality, and that is wrong. They need to have an ethos which reflects the area.

‘It’s not just because we are Muslims, there are Christians here too. We don’t have a vendetta against homosexuals and we respect the Act. We respect that Mr Moffat is gay and we are happy for him to teach.’

She said she would consider taking her daughter out of school full-time if the lessons continued, claiming children were being affected ’emotionally and psychologically’.”

This report is from The Daily Mail. Not known for its support of Muslims! And if words were edited on the video, clearly to make the interviewee seem less sympathetic, they could also be in print. They may have referred to the signs parents are holding in the photos in the same report: “SAY NO TO SEXUALISING OUR CHILDREN”; “SAY NO TO DISCRIMINATING AGAINST OUR CHILDREN”; “SAY NO TO UNDERMINING PARENTAL RIGHTS & AUTHORITY”; “EDUCATION NOT INDOCTRINATION”; “LET KIDS BE KIDS”; “STOP EXPLOITING CHILDREN’S INNOCENCE”.

Let’s note that this mother correctly pointed out that the Equality Act 2010 covers 9 characteristics – whereas Alston Primary, also in Bimingham, using the No Outsiders programme (explicitly stating that Upper Key Stage 2 (9-11 year-olds) are given books on sexual and gender orientation) gets them wrong: the protected characteristic ‘sex’ is incorrectly listed as ‘gender’ and ‘race’ is listed without ‘colour, ethnicity or nationality’, ‘pregnancy and maternity’ isn’t mentioned and neither is ‘marriage or civil partnership’. So these Muslim mothers have a point.

Let’s just note that Andrew Moffat MBE is doing a Ph.D. ‘on the role of schools in countering terrorism’ and that the headteacher of this school has already reported 3 children to the police under the controversial Government Prevent Agenda that some feel is doing more to alienate British Muslims than prevent their radicalisation. In that vein, The Independent gets in a wee dig with a conspiracy theory about Muslim ‘practices’ (homosexuals used to have ‘practices’ too but this was upgraded to a ‘lifestyle’) maybe taking over schools in the area – but (sadly) Andrew Moffat MBE’s old school isn’t one of them and, presumably, neither is his new one. Oh well. Also, this whole thing is part of a DfE [Department for Education] scheme called ‘Promoting fundamental British values through SMSC [Spiritual, Moral, Social & Cultural development’. So, it’s not just about naughty religious people and a nice gay man, is it? There’s ideological conflict going on and No Outsiders is a powerful weapon: Government-backed propaganda.

To sum up: in the wake of a Government consultation in England and Wales on transgender self-ID that was better advertised than the really sneaky one that happened in Scotland (to which 51% of respondents weren’t from Scotland, some were from Switzerland and there were even some from Brazil – oh fortunate people!) the assistant head of a school in Birmingham overwhelmingly attended by children from one particular faith community failed entirely to consult with the parents or to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on the other seven protected characteristics apart from the two that he was really interested in. When parents complained about this, his response (with Government backing) was to spin his failure to protect (and be seen to protect) these other characteristics as upholding ‘Fundamental British values’. Meanwhile the press happily linked parents insisting on their kids being taught science, maths and English, to Islamic terrorism.

Here’s my thoughts:

There are already anti-bullying strategies in schools. Perhaps some need to be more specific.

It is not the place of the Government to teach ‘spiritual values’. Britain is fundamentally racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, unsupportive of women who wish to give birth, unsupportive of stable domestic partnerships, (neo)colonialist, unhealthy, pessimistic, cold-hearted, passive-aggressive, lazy, disorganised, unwashed, hypocritical and inhospitable. If you don’t know these things about Britain, travel. Or just speak to people from somewhere else. There are many things I love about the lands and the people currently designated as ‘Britain’ but I wouldn’t wish our ‘fundamental values’ on anyone.

Ironically, the cultural values of internationalism, religious tolerance, veneration of the old and protection of the young, especial provision for the orphan, the widow and the stranger, health and hygiene, open-hearted friendship and warm hospitality, diplomacy, hard work, order, reverence for scholars and teachers – as well as leading the world in legal recognition of post-operative gender reassignment and (historically) unofficial tolerance of discrete same-sex love – famously belong to countries and communities that are Muslim.

islamic-prayer-silhouette-female Thanks to Mohammed Mahmoud Hassan for releasing his image ‘Islamic, Prayer, Silhouette, Female’ into the public domain.

The Kelpies along the Canal

The Forth and Clyde canal is so named as it connects these two rivers but its eastern end drops into the River Carron which flows down to the Forth. Living in a town right in the middle, I’d walked and cycled to Glasgow and from there cycled to Bowling, at the western end, and I wanted to walk to the other end. There be Kelpies!

These water horses, creatures of Celtic legend, have inspired two sculptures in sheet metal and I’d seen them from afar but never visited the site itself. I suppose I felt that, with all the hype, the reality would be a disappointment. I’d felt like that about the Falkirk Wheel and yet, when I saw it, I could only agree that it was an elegant feat of engineering.

The recent ice had melted on the canal by St Valentine’s Day and I decided to continue my walk the following day. Previously I’d walked as far as Falkirk High train station so I started from there, with my dog Ben, at about ten past two in the afternoon.

Signpost at Falkirk High
Signpost to the Kelpies, outside Falkirk High train station

It was a lot more pleasant to walk along the canal towpath in daylight.

Towpath west from Falkirk High
Footpath winding down to the towpath going west from Falkirk High

The last time I did this it was pitch dark! This time I could see the old stone structure of the Union canal, as I walked west towards the Falkirk Wheel which connects the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals.

Old stone and trees on Union canal
Old stone walling and trees along the Union canal

The towpath to the tunnel and the top lock of the Falkirk Wheel was closed so I took the shortcut over a bridge and popped into the Visitors Centre. There it was strange to see the basin dry and the Wheel itself surrounded by scaffolding, awaiting its reopening in May.

Dry basin at Falkirk Wheel
Dry basin of the Falkirk Wheel marina
Scaffolding around Falkirk Wheel
Scaffolding around the Falkirk Wheel

But the café was open, with its friendly staff, and I picked up some supplies.

“Towpath Talk”, “The Tillergraph” and two bags of crisps on a hexagonal wood and plastic table

A map near the door of the Visitors Centre shows the canals and rivers around Falkirk.

Map of canals and rivers around Falkirk
Map stenciled on three panels of French windows showing the Forth and Clyde, joined by the Union at the Wheel, running northeast to the Kelpies, the Carron and the Forth

I walked across the wooden bridge to the north side of the Forth and Clyde canal.

Canalboats at Falkirk on the Forth and Clyde
Wooden bridge and canalboats along the Forth and Clyde looking east

The canalboats that are usually in the marina, or somewhere along either canal, were now tied along the bank near the entrance to the Wheel.

More canal boats at Falkirk
More canalboats on the Forth and Clyde

By this time, it was almost three o’clock and I thought we would have light enough to reach the Kelpies but I didn’t want to be walking back along the canal in the dark, again! My first idea was to take the train to Camelon, where legend sites the Camelot of King Arthur (the central lowlands of Scotland have a lot of evidence of Brythonic heritage that links to the people now in Cumbria, Cymru and Kernow, so this is not as far-fetched as it sounds) but I couldn’t get a return ticket so then I had the idea of retracing my steps from Falkirk High. But in the light! Present-day Camelon (pronounced ‘Kamelin’) is quite prosaic.

Terraced housing around a park with swings and trees, a hut with WELCOME TO KEMLIN in the foreground

Some of the wildlife, like this magpie who fluttered away through the branches, are quite shy.

Magpie and nest
A magpie hiding near his nest among the branches

Some, like these swans, are more inquisitive.

Swan family
A family of three swans swims towards the bank with a small pretty canalboat in the background

The canal skirts the north of the town and a series of locks provide interest and pretty locations for some canalside cafes and pubs.

Lock 16 to 11 on the Forth and Clyde canal
Lockgates and an information board on a grassy verge of the canal, with trees and houses
Pleasant walking along Forth and Clyde canal
A bridge and lockgates with a mother and child walking in the distance
Pontoon on Forth and Clyde
Ben the dog runs past a pontoon near lockgates, with pubs and factories ahead

The industrial heritage is evident in the factories, such as this one for whisky, along the banks.

Old whisky factory
Three modern steel sculptures of whisky bottles with an old factory on the other side of the canal
Scottish Canals industrial heartland board
Scottish Canals information board explaining how iron, vinegar, rope and chemicals were made and transported along the canal

I also loved the whimsical graffiti of dragonfire and an umbrella-wielding hero, on an old stone lintel set in a wall.

Dragonfire and umbrella grafitti on old stone wall
Bricked up door with funny graffiti above

Further along, the canal seemed more functional than pretty.

Towpath sloping up to road
Ben waiting obediently on the path as it ascends from the canal to a busy road

Heading out of town, to avoid scrambling through a lock-keeper’s garden, we had to climb a steep flight of steps to the road and immediately descend. But the reedbeds further on were unexpected and no doubt a valuable contribution to the local ecology.

Reedbeds across the canal
Reedbeds on the other side of the canal

By now we’d been walking for two hours and I felt there was something familiar about this bridge. Had I seen it in an article about the Kelpies?

Ben waiting under the last bridge
Ben waiting under a bridge

The ducks ahead swam over to investigate us.

Ducks on the canal
A pair of Mallards and a white duck swim towards us

Which was nice but aloud I wondered, “Where are the Kelpies?” And looked around…

First sight of the Kelpies across the fields
First sight of the Kelpies across fields to the left

There, across the fields. We hurried on, with fresh energy. In minutes I was seeing them just across the canal.

Kelpies across the canal
The Kelpies closer now, just across the canal to the right and along the path

Then just at the end of the path!

Kelpies along the path
The Kelpies at the end of the path

Then, of course, I had to get close. Ben went back on the lead and we approached the western waterhorse. Which has been sculpted so expressively.

Beautiful Kelpie up close
The western Kelpie, looking down and to the right, with a beautiful expression

Before approaching the eastern Kelpie, I wanted to walk to the end of the canal. And witness the last few feet of water, pouring down the lockgate and into the River Carron.

Last lock on the Forth and Clyde canal
The Forth and Clyde canal plunges over the last lockgate
Canal ends at the Carron
Below the lockgate, the canal joins the Carron

From there, the river flows under a bridge and down to pass industrial Grangemouth on the Forth.

Canal and the Carron under a bridge
The River Carron flows under a bridge down towards Grangemouth on the Forth

But then we walked back to more legendary beauty.

Kelpie and the moon from base
The head of the eastern Kelpie rearing up towards the moon
The Kelpies up close
The two Kelpies side by side

Technology, wild nature, myth and beauty. I sat at a table in the café. And fell in love.

The Kelpies
The Kelpies at sunset with a pylon tower to their left, trees in the background and water below

[All photos ©Alan McManus 2019. Use permitted with link to this post]

High on Emotion: Films on AIDS

addiction adult capsule capsules
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hogmanay, as we call New Year’s Eve in Scotland, may seem an odd time to blog about AIDS. Surely there are more positive subjects, at “That hour, o’ night’s black arch the key-stane” when we hear the bells of midnight and look forward to a new year. Yet, for some, Hogmanay is not a happy hour but rather, as Robert Burns goes on, “That dreary hour”, when thoughts of the year ahead are filled with dread.

Nowadays it is de rigueur to be positive about HIV/AIDS. We know that we’re winning the fight, we know that people are living longer, we know that…we know a lot of things about this specialist topic of retrovirology and epidemiology. We’ve just forgotten how we know them. Recently, reviewing Chicago Tribune writer John Crewdson’s exposé of the machinations of the man credited with the (co)discovery of HIV, it struck me that the stubborn refusal of most people (scientists or not) to review all the evidence, for all this positivity and assumed knowledge, had nothing to do with logic.

Because we know, in fact, that AZT (the first anti-HIV drug) was lethal. We know that people on HAART (combination therapy) aren’t dying so quickly and horrifically as others did on AZT – but are dying of major organ failure caused by these drugs. We know that the HIV/AIDS hypothesis has become so convoluted (in the philosophy of science, such distortions of the original theory to fit the empirical evidence are referred to as ‘epicycles’) that it can be conclusively cut down by Occam’s Razor.

So how do we know what we don’t actually know?

Films, movies if you’re American (and most of them are). That’s how. So I’ve been (re)watching some. Here’s what I discovered:

And The Band Played On and Philadelphia both came out in 1993. On the surface, the latter was the soft-focus, feel-good film for strait (sic, deal with it) White, middle-class Americans to stop treating gay men and people-with-AIDS as social pariahs; with an undercurrent of panic about the blood supply that fed in nicely to pressure on the government to release more funds for research that would ultimately end up in the pockets of huge multinational pharmaceutical companies. It worked. For years afterwards, whenever I said to one of my sisters (the trendy one, not the sensible nurse) ‘I have something to tell you’, she’d put on her Philadelphia face. The former is a more complex film in that it focuses on the urgency of finding a cure (understandably as the director died of AIDS shortly after the release) and can be summed up in one quote:

“When your house is burning, you don’t wait for irrefutable scientific proof – you pour on water!”

Yes. But first you make damn sure that it’s water and not petrol (gasoline). Doing just anything at all, rather than sticking to a policy of ‘wait and see’, isn’t always the wisest choice. Scientifically, it alters the variables under study in an uncontrolled way. Watching this film again, despite Crewdson’s exposé, I had more sympathy for the scientists. Being pressured by an angry mob (with very, very good reason to be angry and scared) to urgently come up with results is no good atmosphere in which to conduct research. This film shows a vital clue being missed, one that even Dr Gallo, the subject of Crewdson’s book, acknowledged as linked with Kaposi’s Sarcoma (the iconic AIDS disease causing the famous lesions in the court scene in Philadelphia). One of the cute, White, young, male doctors of the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) says:

“You can forget about poppers. We ran every test there is. The worst that ever happened was two mice dancing with the rubber glove.”        

This is factually wrong. As Professor Duesberg (who convinced Gallo) points out:

“Recognizing the universal popularity of nitrates among homosexual men in 1981, the CDC was forced to consider this drug as one possible explanation of the emerging AIDS epidemic. […] It did not even occur to them that nitrates could be toxic by themselves. Therefore they searched for a contaminated or bad batch of nitrates. […] The CDC also assumed the effects would show immediately after using poppers, not after years of abuse, the way lung cancer and emphysema follow only after years of smoking tobacco. Naturally, no contaminated batch could ever be found, and the CDC dismissed the hypothesis altogether and thereafter focused its search entirely on infectious agents. (Duesberg & Ellison/1996/272, ellipsis mine)”

I’m not going to debate these rival hypotheses here, as I do that in Silence and Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate. I just want to show the effect of these films. The effect of these two was to create demand for AZT.

By 2013, when The Dallas Buyer’s Club came out, the hippy dippy doctor in Mexico (that old ‘White man travels far, seeks exotic wisdom’ plotline) could confidently say: “AZT will kill you” then give a lot of good advice about nutrition – then hand over ddC, a less toxic version of AZT. Less toxic. The subject of the film died in 1992, 7 years after diagnosis, when most people on AZT barely survived 2 years. So the effect of this film was to confirm the (relative) success of combination therapy.

How to Survive a Plague, released in 2012, was to this film what And The Band Played On was to Philadelphia: more detailed, angrier, less soft-soap. Strangely, the same drug, Interferon, that was damned in the 2012 film is hailed in the 2013 one. One might almost believe in pressure from Big Pharma. Yet How to Survive a Plague is all about resistance to corporate and governmental pressure. The film charts the rise of ACT-UP and the painful split in this collective that led to the creation of TAG (the Treatment Action Group) who started working with the government and with Big Pharma. The most poignant scene is when bereaved people, carrying the ashes of their loved ones, converge at the most famous fence in Washington and throw the contents of these urns onto the White House lawn, shouting “WE BRING THE DEAD TO YOUR DOOR!” I cried at this scene. How could I not? Yet, at the end of the film, the TAG spokesman is saying that, finding out that ddI and ddC had the same effectiveness as AZT, he admits “naïveté on our part” for pressuring research priorities. The film ends up pushing combination therapy.

Combination therapy is the topic of Fire in the Blood, also 2103, but set in South Africa. Harrowing is the only word to describe this documentary. Dr Peter Rost, former vice-president of Pfizer is the big bad wolf but he admits very revealing things:

“The [pharmaceutical] companies are running the US government. They’re pulling the strings!” “Drug companies are not there to protect the third world. They’re there to make money.”

It’s hard to see the corporate angle in this documentary. The CEO of the Indian pharmaceutical company CIPLA does seem caring and cuts costs in a way that is apparently compasionate. The political angel is fairly obvious. Bush bad; Clinton good. With funding from the William J. Clinton Foundation. It was the year that Hillary Clinton reversed her opposition to equal marriage, looking to secure the pink vote in the run-up to the 2016 presidential candidate nomination.

The problem with trying to put across the alternative hypotheses for the phenomena of AIDS (drugs, including poppers and anti-HIV medications; foreign proteins in blood transfusions) is that most people aren’t really interested in either science or facts. They want to get high on emotion. That’s why a hard-to-hear podcast like the 2012 interview with Mark Zuhrbriggen, a South African Health Practitioner (on How Positive Are You?) is not likely to move hearts and change minds. Even when he says that combination therapy is causing African babies to be born blind and deformed. And that people are still dying. The Lazarus effect doesn’t last.

It is true that there are informative documentaries on the alternative hypotheses – such as House of Numbers in 2009, Positively False in 2014 and Positive Hell in 2016 – but, whereas the HIV-AIDS hypothesis films need viewers only to emote, these documentaries rely on the willingness of viewers to think. Maybe, if someone makes an emotive film about corporate greed for money and fame, about blinkered scientific research and actually explores the alternative hypotheses, maybe then we might stop people dying and babies being deformed. Meanwhile, all we have are the facts.

(Thanks to Pixabay and Pexels for the photo)


AIDS: Piety and Heresy

Standing at the back of the Cathedral (because the pews are packed) I see speaker after speaker who would not otherwise darken the door of a place of worship – and wholeheartedly despise organised religion – ascend the wooden steps of the high pulpit, and I listen to them recount stories of faith and hope and love to the faithful below. At some point, amid the red balloons and festoons of rainbow tape, below the banners proclaiming WE ARE ALL INNOCENT and THERE IS NO DEATH: THERE IS ONLY LIFE, candles are lit, and held up. And there is a reading of names. Amid the silences that follow, we murmur names of the faithful departed, our beloved dead. Our lovers, our kin, our stars, our friends.

We will remember them, but this is no Remembrance Day Service. Three weeks after the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we gather in the evening to remember the dead who bore no arms except their own, who loved and lost their lives against an implacable and inhuman enemy (despite its name). From the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. Their absence accompanies us though all our daily rituals and even, especially, on our holidays. There are two lines of separation here: one between the quick and the dead; one between the negative and the positive. No, in this instance, it is preferable to be negative.

This is our faith. This is our practice. This World AIDS Day Service, generously supported by large pharmaceutical companies and attended by people who live their lives in the earnest attempt to be the solution: to be open, to be free, to love spontaneously, to give generously, to care for the Earth and all her peoples, to save the whales and to walk their dogs and to be inspired, in a thoroughly disorganised and understated sort of spirituality, by the wonders of Nature, and by the diversity of humankind and by the small acts of kindness that (despite our systems of structural injustice and personal meanness of character) we persist in committing, daily.

The atmosphere is holy, special, set apart. This is time out, time for reflection. They who have gone before us, wherever they have gone, have run out of time. We have not. So we must use our time to best advantage. Because time flies. And for some of us, perhaps many, in this place tonight, time is fleet-footed indeed. All we can do is cherish each other, for the time we have left together, and work for a solution that will extend that time. Until our inhuman enemy, HIV, the slinking emissary of AIDS, is finally defeated.

If it ever existed in the first place. Or if it were ever harmful. Imagine the rage that would course through the pews like a purifying fire, if such thoughts, such criminal and impious thoughts, were ever voiced aloud in such a setting. Imagine the inundation of indignant words against such thoughtcrime, such insensitivity, that would dare to suggest that all this piety, all the docility of those we love (surrendering their bodies to the side-effects of AZT/ ART/ HAART, succumbing finally to PCP, KS and liver failure) all this was mistaken. There is only one word for such impiety: heresy.

(Silence and Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate)

Candle lit in darkness

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Candle” into the Public Domain.


I’ve been ranting lately on Twitter (you may have noticed). I’m vegan, gender-critical and I question the HIV-AIDS hypothesis. There’s a lot to rant about. Today it’s about idiots shooting wild goats on Islay and the tour company that promotes this. However, when I’m not ranting on social media, proofreading, acting, navigating along the Forth & Clyde canal in a narrowboat or rowing boat, I like to go walking.

For various reasons, I haven’t had a holiday this year. Summer is a busy time, workwise, and my plans to fit in a short break between plays didn’t work out. So I decided to walk to Edinburgh along the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, in stages, on good days. A good day in Scotland is the same as a good day anywhere else: it’s when you have the gumption to keep going (that’s a wee nod to the late Dr Robert M. Pirsig, by the way).

I live on the border of what’s blithely known as Central Scotland (which is about 100 miles south of the geographical centre) and my town is bounded by both the Antonine Wall, which predates Hadrian’s, and the Forth & Clyde canal. So I’m fortunate to have access to beautiful countryside by simply walking up the road for five minutes.

Last week I walked from Kirkintilloch to Auchinstarry then back by Barr Hill, the site of a Roman fort and the inspiration for another novel idea for the Bruno Benedetti series. After I finish the one I’m writing now, which is mostly set in Fife.

The marina at Auchinstarry is just down the road from Croy train station and it was from here that I (and my trusty canine companion, Ben) started walking on Monday:

Narrowboats at Auchinstarry marina on the Forth & Clyde canal

I’d started a bit late, I’d slept badly and I do tend to faff, so we’d caught the train at Lenzie about 2:30pm and arrived at Croy (a mile or so uphill, to the right of the photo) about ten minutes later. This photo was taken after a snack sitting on the steps at the back of the restaurant, which was unfortunately closed (boaters blame the extortionate rent charged by Scottish Canals, I couldn’t possibly comment). The canal towpath is to the left.

The next photostop, and snack, was about 4pm at Kelvinhead. Where I found picnic tables and Ben found much to sniff!

My tan terrier Ben sniffing under a wooden picnic table beside the towpath

I won’t say that my cares instantly vanished as soon as I started strolling along. I didn’t do any walking meditation and I was a bit anxious that I’d really started too late to get to Falkirk High before dark. But I’d silenced my phone and only took it out for photos. And the peace and just walking started to have its effect. Wyndford, just before Banknock, was the next pretty picture, about half an hour later. Lock 20 is at the top of the eastern section of this canal, which leaves 18 miles of canal to navigate without portage (carrying your boat) all the way to Maryhill in Glasgow. As I’ve recently acquired a Mirror sailing dinghy, which I want to use to row on the canals and sail on lochs, I was pleased to see low pontoons or canal walls for portage places on either side of each lock.

Loch 20 Wyndford
Stone canalside cottage with lock and pontoon in foreground

I couldn’t resist snapping the contrast between the frenetic motorway traffic, roaring over the bridge carrying the M80 between Stirling and Cumbernauld, and the peaceful stone bridge a few yards to the east at Craigmarloch.

Cars & lorries on the M80 bridge over the F & C canal

Bridge near motorway
Peaceful stone bridge over the canal at Craigmarloch

The residents at Banknock have extended their back gardens right up to the towpath, outdoing each other in displays of rock gardening and topiary. I wasn’t expecting any section of this canal to look like an entry for Britain’s Prettiest Railway Station and this display of quirkiness made me smile. About 5:30pm the sun began to set.

Looking west along F & C canal at setting sun

However, Glasgow sits at a higher latitude than Moscow, we were a bit further north still, and the sun takes a while to set and the time in between we call the gloaming. So I was able to snap this shot of cattle browsing and taking a drink from the canal, about twenty minutes later.

Cattle browse on the far bank while one drinks from the canal

Much of the canal has a fairly straight and level towpath with trees either side, and some might find it monotonous. I find it soothing. Just walking. Just being in nature. No need of the exhausting adrenaline rush of constant thrill and distraction.

Ben facing camera
Ben sniffing along the towpath, looking east

Still, by the time we arrived at Bonnybridge, which I’d mistaken for Falkirk, I was already a bit weary and I knew we didn’t have much light left. So I was glad to see a train on the line from Falkirk High, our destination, on the far bank.

Train among the trees over the canal

Finally at Falkirk about a quarter past 6 and there were canalboats, either marooned by the closure of the bridges until March (hopefully) next year or just waiting to go up over the Wheel to the Union canal in the morning.

boats at Falkirk
Narrowboat and 2 cabin cruisers moored at Falkirk

Then the Falkirk Wheel itself! Unfortunately the centre was closed, understandably at this hour, in October, so I didn’t get the coffee I’d been dying for all day! But I was glad to have made it, with just a step to go till the train station. First to climb the hill to the tunnel.

Falkirk Wheel across the F & C canal

Looking over the Wheel from the top at the tunnel entrance is a serene and majestic sight. I took a while to visit the Wheel because of all the hype but this is indeed a beautiful feat of engineering.

looking back to wheel
Looking north over the top of the Wheel

We entered the tunnel about six thirty. The entrance is cute but inside is a bit spooky and I was glad to have Ben and, I suspect, vice versa.

entering tunnel
Entering the tunnel

The tunnel itself is well-maintained and we trotted along with no mishap.

looking back from inside tunnel
Looking back at the Wheel from inside the tunnel

And then we were out and walking along the Union canal!

union canal
Union canal from the tunnel exit

The Santa House was just round the corner.

Santa house
Santa’s House for festive boat trips

And then another lock. We hurried on.

lock gate waterfall
Lock with water overflowing

Ten minutes later and it was getting very dark indeed.

darkening sky
Darkness falls over the Union canal, looking west

I realised that what had seemed a short step, on a bike, was a bit of a way, walking in the dark.

last stretch
Dark towpath and canal looking east

Falkirk isn’t known for crime, unlike my native Glasgow (mostly unfairly) but by the time I saw the twinkling lights of the tunnel above the train station, and the brighter light of Falkirk High, it was almost 7pm and I was very glad to have, nearly, reached safety. Ben had already tried to head off the towpath towards civilisation. He’d had enough.

station and tunnel
Twinkling lights of tunnel above the station

Journey’s end, Falkirk High. Never have I been more glad to see a railway station!

Falkirk High
Back entrance to Falkirk High train station

We walked into the station as a train arrived, got on, changed at Croy and arrived at Lenzie and walked 20 minutes to a warm, dog-friendly pub where Ben had water, lots of pats and a lie down and I had a great fried jackfruit with potato wedges. Hot and tasty. Renewed, we walked home. Where I immediately went onto Twitter and apologised to some people for ranting. A day spent in nature does give one perspective. (But I hope those hunters of wild goats get jailed and the community on Islay gets recompense from suing that company!)

[All photos ©Alan McManus 2018. Use permitted with link to this post]

The War Against Trees

Men (and it is mostly men) fight wars for many reasons, some more spurious than others. Usually the reasons given are a clash of interests, with both sides proclaiming noble values such as Home and Family and Morality and Our Children and Our Way of Life. We’ve become so used to wars that there are some of them that journalists hardly bother to report any more. Who knows and who cares what’s actually happening in the Congo? is the attitude (not enough to get the name right) or, internecine warfare between Jews and Arabs in the Near East is not worth reporting because nothing ever changes. The same can be said for The War on Terror – or rather between Whoever’s Got Oil (apart from Saudi Arabia) and the Western powers (apart from France and Germany). I marched in 1991 in San Francisco under a banner that said ‘NO BLOOD FOR OIL!’ and I hope whoever made it kept it because it would have come in useful in the decades ahead.

Then there are all the other wars. Like The War on Cancer. That seems to be an easy one: humanity on one side and cancer on the other, surely. A complicating factor its overlap with The War on Animals – a systematic global and multicultural campaign of torture and slaughter so kitsched by the infantile propaganda of Daisy the Happy Cow (forcibly impregnated, separated from her daughters, lowing for her slaughtered sons) and the Easter lambs (ditto) and chicks (mothers debeaked without anaesthetic or pecking their daughters to death in the same overcrowded cages, all awaiting electrocution while they never see the sun, the fluffy little sons picked out by human hands and pushed along a conveyor belt towards a sharp screw that grinds them into chicken nuggets) that most people’s reaction to the facts of the life and death of farmed animals is one of incredulity and anger against those who don’t support it. The daily industry is the meat industry. Egg production for human consumption relies on one cock, many hens, and all the other males chicks to slaughter.

A complication of both these Wars, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, is a food industry that ignores health and a health industry that ignores food. Then there’s the fact that even top editors of The BMJ , the NEMJ and The Lancet admit that the findings of most medical research are fabricated and published under pressure (follow the links). All those women wearing pink. All those charity shops. All those tortured animals. All those tenured professors. All those eager interns practising vivisection on their own hearts to cut out all traces of compassion. All advancing their careers. Because in vivo looks good on a CV (résume). Then there’s The War on AIDS, AKA The War on Gay Men; The War Against Transphobia, AKA The War Against Women (and Specifically Lesbians); and last but not least The War For Full Bodily Autonomy, AKA The War Against Female and Disabled Babies.

Having angered most of you now, consider this: who is the beneficiary in The War Against Trees? Why is it that so many men (mostly) are cutting down so many trees? This is a real question. Let’s try to think through the answer.

Everyone knows that men (more than women) are impressed by big hard things. I am. If there is a mountain, I want to climb it. I’m Scottish, my instinct is to walk up (probably because it gets very boggy, walking down). I’m also a man. But I don’t want to cut down trees.

I remember my father destroying a pear tree in the garden. It didn’t yield many pears, it’s true. But he pruned and cut it and sawed it up and yanked the roots out of the ground and sawed them up too. Then came back into the kitchen and cried for his brother that we had just buried. We watched him do it. I did nothing. He’d been a prisoner of war. Emotions didn’t come easy to my father.

In the past month, I got into the local paper in an article that was very well-meaning but almost entirely inaccurate apart from when it stated that I was questioning the right of an arrogant rich young man to chop down and burn trees along the banks of the beautiful Forth and Clyde Canal, right on top of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Antonine Wall (older than Hadrian’s) in the hottest weather Scotland has ever had in living memory, during a wildfire warning, when the children had just got off school and families in this working-class neighbourhood were enjoying sitting in the sun in their back gardens – suddenly beset by smoke and the continual noise of a chainsaw.

Why do men hate trees?

In Sheffield, the local council want to cut down thousands of street trees. They’ve already destroyed 5,500 of them and want to destroy 20,000 more. Here’s the protest group for your support.

I talked about this to a friend and his reaction was that mature trees are less efficient at CO2 capture than saplings (then I remembered that he’s an accountant). While that may be true (I’m no expert) the benefits of trees are not reducible solely to their function of chemical gaseous exchange – as this rather What’s in it For You account shows.

So why do men hate trees?

My embarrassed answer is that it’s #notallmen (as if that helps when you’re a tree cut down in your prime) and my guess is that it’s the same hatred and sense of inadequacy that drives men to torture and kill beautiful powerful animals such as bulls and elephants and lions and whales, and to generally rape Nature. In other words it’s all about domination.

So why do men hate trees?

What is it about trees that men find so threatening? Is it their longevity, many species mocking the brief span of man? Is it their height, superior? Is it their beauty and the way that women love them? Is it because children delight in them? Is it because tall and dignified and stoic and silent, sheltering and inspiring, trees embody all the qualities that men wish to possess?

Do men hate trees because they are jealous of them? Is this hatred so irrational, so deep-seated, so ingrained in every pissed-off possessor of a Y chromosome capable of tearing off twigs, breaking branches, or assaulting their age-ringed trunks with deadly steel that there is little hope now of natural shade or stability of soil or ever reversing climate change?

I heartily dislike the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, it renders the agency of women null and void (see The Mermaid and the Minotaur) and takes us into the murky waters of gender stereotypes. But, in this case, it seems quite apt.

Why do men hate trees?

The next time you see one of us assaulting one of them, ask (if you feel safe doing so).

Maybe, just maybe, one of us will think about that question and, in the meantime, one of them may be saved.


Thanks to Stephani Elizabeth who has released her photo “Buddhist Face in Tree Stock” (at Ayutthaya ruins in Thailand) into the public domain.

Taking Teddy Bears to Gaza

I take off my sandals, for this is holy ground.

Sitting in her sometimes sunny garden in a small town outside of Glasgow, my mother (with the same span of years as the Queen) looks at the twenty-two pictures I show her from the Twitter account of the Rev. Kate McDonald, ‘an Appalachian Scottish Episcopal priest serving in the Church of Scotland in Israel and Palestine’.

The first photo is of this year’s Pride parade in Tel Aviv. Rainbows and the Star of David. The Sabra are a handsome people but I don’t see any smiles in this picture. This parade is controversial inside and outside Israel. It is opposed by Orthodox Jews, by the Muslim majority states of the Near and Middle East (including the Palestinian West Bank where same sex relations are criminal and Gaza where they are punishable by death) and denounced as ‘pinkwashing’ by Western liberals.

On Saturday I plan to attend a small, new, Pride parade taking place on the Isle of Bute, a promontory a ferry ride over the Clyde Estuary. I usually attend both Edinburgh and Glasgow parades. I take my dog, who loves the attention. I can remember when homosexual ‘acts’ were criminalised here in Scotland. I remember when the age of consent was six, then two, years above that for heterosexual ‘acts’. My heart was moved when I attended a civil partnership in Cardonald and the gallus MC, wearing a pink fringed Stetson, said ‘right let’s have the grooms to lead us in The Slosh’. I cried when the people of my country decided ‘it’s time’ to legislate for equal marriage.

The next two photos are street scenes from Gaza. A man under the bonnet of his car, the typical webs of two-thirds-world electricity cables on the graffitied concrete walls and (looking closer) the holes in the concrete and in the beautiful patterns of ventilation tiles. A thin donkey harnessed to an empty cart waits patiently in the sun while two wee boys are in a shaded doorway, one winding something on a stick. Fairy lights above a closed shop.

Then, two blonde White women, both wearing a voluminous white blouse and a long black skirt, trundle smart suitcases and tote Lululemon bags (from the store in Glasgow?) bearing inspirational messages that are full of plastic-wrapped teddy bears from the congregation of Dunfermline Abbey, on the ‘long walk through no-man’s land between Israel and Gaza’.

Two photos: the rusted sign in English and Arabic over the steel plates and delicate tracery of the gate of the Ahli Arab Hospital; and Suheila Tarazi the Director, gesticulating with a pen as she says: ‘We are part of a mosaic picture – whether Christians, or Muslims, or Jews – and we have to keep this hospital as a witness of Christianity working in Gaza…we are small instruments to do God’s work.’

Then Fr Mario, in his Catholic black clericals and white collar, makes a point sitting on a worn brown sofa with a white phone behind him on the painted cream wall: ‘Our work is to preach about hope & pardon & forgiveness.’ Kate tells us that there are roughly 1,100 Christians in Gaza, 138 are Catholic (out of a pop. of 2 million).

Three photos titled ‘Morning beach walk in Gaza’ and the first just looks like flotsam and jetsam at the tideline until I notice the rods sticking up out of the sand. They might be seaweed. They might be barbed wire fence pickets to deter boats landing. The second has lovely smiles from girls in a peach, plum or black and white mosaic hijab, Kate’s in this selfie and smiles too. She’s not wearing a hijab. An attractive face, strong and honest, and determined, but there’s tension there. How could there not be? Then there are covered stalls on the beach and what I recognise as cabanas. A fishmarket? A marina beyond the harbour wall (is the harbour open at all?) and the city beyond. Grey cloud covers most of the blue sky.

Three photos from Rafah, near the border with Egypt, ‘glimpses of Gaza’. So this must be a neighbourhood or region. Concrete walls, bars on windows, washed underwear, shalwar kameez and a prayer mat hung out to dry in the sun. A white Subaru (is it a taxi?) driven by a bearded man with a smiling woman beside him and someone in the back, a big air conditioner outside a Wataniya mobile shop where three men look at plants on a horse-drawn cart. People wearing white herd sheep past buildings and white cars and carry what may be hay or wool on a cart.

Then thirteen little kids, with all the expressions that kids have everywhere, kneel around a multicoloured fabric circle (was it a balloon?) and play cat’s cradle with a smiling woman in a fawn hijab with white lace trim with coloured plastic bins and shelves full of toys and books. Beside two beach balls, surreal lines of poetry in beautiful handwriting on foolscap paper: ‘All of this gets in front/ All the world’s esophagus/ an[d the] Arabs/ […]’. A mystery, to me.

But Kate’s caption is clear: ‘Today the teddies were delivered to Lubna at the Near East Council of Churches to be distributed at their clinics which provide healthcare and psychosocial support to children throughout Gaza. Thank you @abbey_church @churchscotland!!’.  And a smiling young woman with a white cloth hairband carrying a more serious wee tot wearing a pink bolero top with puffed sleeves with a bow in her Champaign coloured dress and a Kirby grip in her hair. A slighty older woman with black hijab and glasses gesticulating in an office with a poster on a cork board behind her with Arabic and the red kangaroo of Australian Aid. And then the teddies. In a big transparent vacuum sealed clothes storage bag, with a sign from Dunfermline Abbey: ‘A Labour of Love’.

Four photos from Hilarion Monastery. Kate says it’s ‘a site dating back to the 4th century & an important part of Gaza’s rich cultural heritage.’ Red tulip roses (?) with flower and thorn, outside, and inside a beautifully preserved leafy floor mosaic with a baptismal font in the centre. A basket of grapes in the centre of a patio mosaic with a surrounding peacock, a horse, an ibis, a swan, doves, a dog – and is that a hippo? Beyond the patio is the city. How will such treasure, the patrimony of humankind, survive?

Kate says goodbye to Gaza with the interculturally comprehensible Wataniya Arabic ‘W’ inside a heart on the concrete roadsign that reads ‘I love Gaza’.

Twenty-two photos. One for every letter of the alphabet I learned, lazily, at university where I studied alongside candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Hebrew is a language that some ancestors of mine may have spoken. Although the matrilineal descent was broken, when my German great-grandfather came to London, if the patronymic was passed down faithfully, then one of them may have been Aaron, brother of Moses, liberator of the oppressed.

In my naïve youth, I spend four months washing dishes and picking mangoes on a kibbutz opposite Tiberias, where the Rev Kate is stationed. There was no wall then but there was always war. I learned a little as I sat with Scottish and German girls making anklets and friendship bracelets, eating baklava and drinking endless cups of Arabic coffee from a lovely porcelain demi-tasse all afternoon with a Bedouin called Ali in his shop just off the Via Dolorosa. Leaving, I looked out over Jerusalem and thought that the only conclusions I had come to were that the Holy Land is so beautiful, and the situation so complex.

Thirty years on, I haven’t learned anything more.

But this I know. If ever there was an image of priesthood, it’s this: a woman walking a careful line through no man’s land. Taking teddy bears to Gaza.

Teddy Bear



It must have seemed like a great idea at the time, the horseless carriage. Horses are beautiful creatures but the remnants of their passage (sorry) are not. Even today, when dog walkers are fined for not disposing of their pooch’s poop, police officers on their high horses strut off with impunity – leaving behind piles of the stuff for pedestrians and perambulators to negotiate. Suddenly, in that age of elite optimism that ignored mass oppression after the Franco-Prussian War and the American Civil War – the ‘Gilded Age’ of industrialisation in the USA, Birmarck’s German Empire and the French Belle Époque , the Victorian colonial Pax Britannica – there was a solution for all that shit.

Rich men could whizz around – in their Benz or Ford – at a dizzying  3 miles an hour, dismaying and delighting suitably hatted ladies and together they could escape the smoggy city for the bucolic countryside without recourse to the sooty train. They could simultaneously escape her protective relatives and all the confines of the imperial politeness of courtship. They could also, in some shady nook, escape their clothes. It was an age of parking. For some of these ladies, the rapture of freedom came at a price.

Even today, being able to drive and having access to a car – especially one you own – is generally considered a prerequisite for adult masculine identity. In a very clever trick of marketing, it is now also considered a prerequisite for female autonomy. The recent ruling that allowed women to drive in Saudi Arabia is a case in point. There are some odd people, the kind that had beards before everyone else or wear all-natural fibres (but not wool, mohair or angora) and belong to at least one collective, who don’t drive. But they can – and will let you know that.

Cars are used for caring, for the school run, for visiting the elderly, for providing mobility for those for whom it is challenging. For getting people to hospital and pets to the vet. Quickly. They are convenient. Who wants to take box files on a bus? Who can keep hold of two toddlers and a terrier on a train? Cars are, at the moment, a necessary evil.

And evil they certainly are. Richard Casson, blogging for Greenpeace last year, lists 5 reasons why we need to rethink our romance with the automotive industry:

  1. climate change (20% of C02 emissions in many countries)
  2. air pollution (0.5 million dead each year in Europe, worse elsewhere)
  3. continuing production of petrol/ diesel engines when electric/ hybrids are available
  4. cheating on emissions tests on an industrial scale
  5. rising popularity of car-sharing and cycling and public transport

So what can we do, right now?

Stop idling your car engine. It’s now illegal in many countries (including the UK) and typically happens outside shops where the mouths of children in pushchairs and dogs chained to lampposts are at the exact height to inhale the maximum amount of carbon monoxide from your exhaust. While you’re off on your merry way, staff in these shops are exposed to a build-up of such fumes during their shifts. Because you’re lazy and thoughtless.

Ask people to stop idling their engines. Explain why. Point out the toddler in the pushchair or tell them about the dog, unseen, behind their car. I’ve done this. People apologise, take it nicely. People don’t want to be poisoners. Not of dogs and kids. (Well, generally.)

Lobby your local council to conduct air quality tests around your local shopping centre or row of local shops, especially where they form a corner with a car park just outside that has only one entrance/ exit. This design is common in suburban areas. Contact supermarket firms by email or on social media and ask them what they are doing to protect the health of their employees in this regard. They have a duty to care. Ask them to consider putting a polite notice up (one that doesn’t contain the words ‘polite notice’) outside their shops.

Join in with the British Lung Foundation #DropOffSwitchOff campaign asking parents and guardians to stop idling their engines outside schools – because:

‘children growing up around severe air pollution are 5 times more likely to have poor lung development’

‘Exhaust emissions from cars contain dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

On a day-to-day basis, high concentrations of air pollution can irritate your throat and lungs, leading to respiratory problems – even in otherwise healthy children.

Long-term exposure has been linked to worsening symptoms of conditions such as asthma, which is common in children. Diesel emissions have even been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.

And research has also shown that pollution levels increase at lower heights, potentially exposing children to greater concentrations than adults.

Idling in cars, which means keeping the engine running while stationary when waiting to drop off or pick up your child from school, increases the amount of this toxic vehicle exhaust in the air.

Many parents believe that stopping a car engine, only to restart it a minute or two later, causes more pollution than idling. This is a myth.

What isn’t a myth is the damage air pollution from idling cars can do to our most vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important to switch off your car engine around schools.’

Brent Council (England) have a great schools pack PDF with lots of downloadable freebies.

Walk to the shops/ your kids to school – if you can.

If you can’t, consider car-sharing/ pooling with people you already know and trust. For the more adventurous, there are numerous car-sharing/ lift-sharing websites around giving advice on safety and insurance.

Cycle. Do I really need to list the benefits? If you feel unsafe (and you may well have good reason) then lobby your local authority for better cycle paths – but DON’T support deadly shared space schemes!!!

Try public transport. Bus companies are moving towards contactless payment so the inconvenience (daylight robbery) of ‘exact fare please’ is being phased out. Trams (when the network eventually gets built) are fun and trains can be both child and dog friendly. Let’s face it, there are leashes of love for both.

Breathe. We have the same impulse as our optimistic (and rather short-sighted) ancestors. But now we know that we can’t escape the smog unless we ourselves stop it.

We can. Together. If you can’t do all of the above, do something!


Thanks to Sheila Brown for releasing her photo ‘Tree Growing Out Of Abandoned Car 3’ into the Public Domain.