How did we get here?

A brief history of events which led up to the killings in Paris last weekend, and beyond.

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.

In 1914 the First World War started. Historians agree that the causes of the war are complex, as large alliances battled for global supremacy, the diplomatic battles turned into physical ones. Millions died as the Allied nations fought against the so called ‘Central powers’.

In 1917 the Russian empire collapsed, and following the revolution which saw Russia become a Socialist republic, the Russians came to terms with the Central powers.

In 1918 the Allies overcame the Central powers, nullifying the treaty they had agreed with Russia, and peace treaties were negotiated with the various countries involved.

The Treaty of Versailles saw Germany agree to a raft of measures which included vast sums in reparation and the occupation of parts of it territory by Allied armies.

As the 1920s began, in Italy the politics headed to the right wing and a fascist party built power. In Japan a growing culture of militarism began to take hold.

With their national pride destroyed and their economy in tatters, some Germans began to follow a new leader, an Austrian born painter turned politician known as Adolf Hitler, he took power in 1933 promising to rebuild.

There was an old woman who swallowed a spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly,  I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die

In 1939 a new war began, as Allied powers took on Germany and its allies after it’s invasion of Poland. Japan and Italy too became involved.

This war was bloodier than the last one, and lasted longer too. When it finally came to an end in 1945, economies were in tatters, and millions of people were dead, huge amounts of them were Russians.

Although they had been allies in the war, relations between Russia and America, which had dramatically different political outlooks, cooled dramatically. Shortly after WW2 ended, the Cold War began.

There was an old woman who swallowed a bird. How absurd to swallow a bird!
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

The Cold War continued for decades, fought hot in proxies here and there as economies were slowly rebuilt. America fought a doomed campaign in Vietnam, and some years later, in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Afghans, like other countries in the same region had been pawns in the Great Game for a long time, now as the Cold War ground on they were once again in the thick of things.

Immediately following the invasion, the British and others began to work out how they could send covert military aid to Islamic insurgents who were battling against the Russians. The Mujahedeen became our proxies in the on going struggle for global supremacy.

Shortly after the invasion a radical Islamist cleric called Abdullah Azzam travelled to Peshawar to assist the Mujahedeen in their struggle. With him went a 21-year-old disciple from Saudi Arabia, an engineer called Osama Bin Laden.

There was an old woman who swallowed a cat.  Imagine that, to swallow a cat!  She swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

In 1989 the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, but not until another million and half people were dead, and further millions had fled the country, leaving it battle scarred, stunted and deprived.

In 1988, Bin Laden who had supported the Mujahideen, decided to start his own movement, called ‘The Base’ or in Arabic ‘Al Quaeda’ which would focus on terrorism rather than ‘traditional’ military tactics. He left Afghanistan around the same time as the Russians, to raise funds for his new organisation.

The 1990s saw the start of AQ’s terror campaign, which climaxed in 2001 with an attack on the twin towers.

It had suited various powers over a number of years to prop up totalitarian regimes in various Middle Eastern and African countries, political support meant access to resources vital for the rebuilding of post war economies. In 1972 the progressive political leader Saddam Hussein had won support from Russia, the Baathist coup of 1968 had seen the US supported regime thrown out. A few turbulent decades led eventually to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As the Middle East grew yet more unstable, in 2010 the Arab spring saw violent and non violent uprisings across the region, which was widely (if nervously) welcomed by the democracy loving West. In Syria, former ophthalmologist turned politician Bashar al-Assad had won international support from a variety of right wing figures including the founder of the KKK, and the BNP’s Nick Griffin held power, and it was widely agreed that he should be toppled.

There was an old woman who swallowed a dog. What a hog, to swallow a dog! She swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.    

While some regimes fell relatively easily, Assad proved difficult to unseat, another bloody civil war ensued, governments were wary of becoming involved too directly, but military advisors and weapons found their way to those opposing Assad in Syria. As they did so, a new group began to emerge.

Now known more generally as IS (Islamic State) this group was founded by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi an Iraqi who claims direct descent from the Prophet. His first recorded message was a eulogy to Osama Bin Laden who was killed by US forces in 2011. As they fought Assad, Al Baghdadi and his forces seized large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and declared a Caliphate.

There was an old woman who swallowed a goat. Just opened her throat, to swallow a goat! She swallowed the goat to catch the dog, she swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

The situation in Syria had become polarised, on the one hand America and others wanted Assad out, but nobody wanted IS to prevail. There appeared to be a catch 22, support the loathed Assad in his fight against IS, or attack Assad and thereby indirectly support IS. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed out of the region, heading for the safe haven of Europe.

After the debacle in Iraq in the 2000s, Europeans and particularly the UK were reluctant to commit military support to action in Syria, all the same, British forces were fighting IS in Iraq, and British planes as part of a UN force were flying sorties in to Syria. Other countries were more strongly committed in Syria, in particular France who were strong in their demand for Assad to step down, but had also committed considerable resources in air strikes against IS positions in the country.

There was an old woman who swallowed a cow, I don’t know how she swallowed a cow! She swallowed the cow to catch the goat, she swallowed the goat to catch the dog, she swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider, that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll die.

In November 2015 a Russian aircraft was brought down over Egypt, IS claimed responsibility. They also claimed responsibility for attacks in Beirut, and then for the extraordinary series of coordinated attacks in Paris which saw the best part of 500 people killed or injured in a series of paramilitary attacks in the heart of the city.

The French response was understandably full of grief and bitterness, and they vowed to redouble their efforts in Syria, immediately launching more air strikes against IS targets. Other countries considered their positions.

There was an old woman who swallowed a horse, she’s dead—of course!

This is a grossly over simplified timeline of events over the last hundred years, which, among other omissions, doesn’t mention colonialism, hardly mentions expansionism, and takes no account of growing religious fundamentalism and its impact on politics. However, it makes, in a very general way, a point.

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God and the dualist imagination part 1: Us & Others

I presented a paper at a conference recently, where I outed myself as a ‘recovering dualist’.

By this I meant that I find it very hard not to think about God with a classic dualist point of view – you know that idea of God as a person out there somewhere, with a Santa type ‘naughty and nice’ pair of lists? Yeah that. I find it a bit hard not to think like that.

I am by background an evangelical, and although I haven’t used that term to describe myself for some time, it has played an important part in forming the way I think about things.

So in a short series of blog posts, I want to look at the issue of dualism as a way of thinking about God.

My first point then, is that I believe underlying the evangelical understanding of God and ‘others’ is a deep seated dualism.

I suggested that this dualism leads to a colonial attitude towards the way the evangelical church approaches ‘others’. While I recognise that there are significant exceptions to this generalisation, it’s useful as a starting point.

My belief is that the majority of evangelicals operate in a kind of Platonic conception of the world as Ideal and Real. There is a separation for instance between concepts such as ‘science and faith’, ‘Christian and secular’, ‘heaven and earth’ and of course, ‘saved and unsaved’. According to this well ingrained way of thinking, all earthly things are intrinsically inferior to the unseen spiritual.

So there is, for instance, a very dualistic way of distinguishing between the evangelical/Christian ‘us’, (saved, sanctified, believers); and ‘them’ – (the unsaved, those of other faiths, the sinners). This dichotomy of salvation has traditionally been part of a sovereignty paradigm. The threat of exclusion from the company of the sanctified, puts ‘us’ in to a position of power, of declaring the orthodoxy.

This runs, however, contrary to the gospel idea of giving up power, as modeled by Jesus in the Kenotic cross ‘event’, and to what Roger Mitchell has described as ‘Kenarchy’ – the emptying out of power on the behalf of others. (Mitchell, The Fall of the Church, 2013)

A dualistic mind-set is conveniently easy: with a clear us and them divide, ‘we’ know who ‘we’ are, and where ‘we’ are. It’s also very much a warfare mentality which not only appropriates violent imagery for the way it approaches discussion of the issues, but also posits the idea of opposing sides in a battle, ranged against one another. ‘Powers of darkness’ almost equal to, and diametrically opposed to ‘powers of good’ – God and Satan juxtaposed against one another as opposing commanders, and this played out on earth between people of faith and the heathen.

It may be easy, it may even be ‘encouraging’ at times of difficulty, but I believe it is deeply problematic.

Read more tomorrow in Part 2.

The practicalities of a 40 day fast

look north cropOn Shrove Tuesday 2014 I had my final meal before giving up food entirely for 40 days. I am fasting to help raise awareness of the issue of food poverty in our country, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I am doing so along side Keith Hebden and Scott Albrecht, who are doing the same fast, and thousands of others who fasted for a day, on April 4th. Many others have chosen to fast for single days each week in Lent. They have my sincere respect, gratitude, and admiration. I’m also grateful to the journalists and media channels who have helped to publicise this.

I have previously written a couple of posts about my reasons for doing this, but this post is about the practicalities, arising from the innumerable questions I’ve been asked by all sorts of people about the process.

There’s perhaps a chance of being presumptuous in writing this on day 32 of my 40 day fast. But I can at least share the story so far.

I did quite a bit of research before undertaking this fast, which included lots of reading and also speaking with people who have accomplished 40 day fasts in the past. In some cases, they have done it a few times.

So what I got was basically what I was expecting.

The most important thing to know is that, so long as you are a person who is in good health, this is a primarily a mental challenge. The body is actually equipped to go for relatively long periods without food if necessary, and has internal mechanisms to deal with it.

The key thing you must do, is ensure you are properly hydrated. And that means in particular that you need to drink lots of water. In my case I have not restricted myself to water, I have drunk fruit juice daily, I have also drunk green tea daily. With these three and the occasional addition of things like carrot juice, carrot and orange juice, V5 vegetable juice (bleugh) and similar I have kept myself feeling pretty well nourished. I have also accepted the occasional black tea when given one, or when there was no other option.

I have also maintained a regular supplemental vitamin intake, I take a multivitamin & mineral tablet every morning, and an effervescent vitamin C tablet most lunch times.

In this way, I have kept up what I think is a reasonable supply of essential nutrients into my system.

I was also advised to consider supplementing the fast with a ‘very thin soup’ such as a vegetable stock, or water from boiled vegetables. I thought about this a lot, and decided I would keep this as a reserve option for a late stage of the fast. So far I have not bothered with doing so, and I suspect I will not resort to it. I dont feel particularly tempted by the idea, and am not sure it would add much at this point.

“Are you hungry all the time?”

The answer is basically no, I’m not. After the first few days in which the body detoxes and deals with its food addictions, you go into ketosis, and the the body begins to break down fats to provide the sugars it needs. Because I have maintained some sugar intake with fruit juices I have managed to sustain ketosis until now. I am hopeful that it will continue until day 40. If it does not, then my body will begin to consume muscle, which will be unpleasant.

“Are you tempted by food all the time?”

Again the answer is no, I have cooked for the children from time to time, and sometimes sit at the table for meals. That doesn’t always work for me, so I’m not religious about it. But so far as I have been able, I’ve attempted to carry on as normal. I must admit that at times when I’ve been in the house on my own, and I’ve known all the nice food we have in our cupboards and fridge, I’ve thought: ‘nobody need ever know…’ but happily I have managed not to go down that route, I’ve eaten nothing.

“How much weight have you lost?”

I went into the fast expecting to lose a stone and a half over the forty days, an amount I felt I could afford to lose reasonably well. I had actually let myself eat a bit more in advance of the fast, so that I had a bit more in reserve. Unfortunately this was an underestimation, and I had lost a stone and a half with two weeks to spare. I think that this week I may have lost another half stone, which means I have gone from just over 13 stone to just over 11. I think it’s roughly 15% of my total body weight, maybe about an arm’s worth. It’s now quite evident that I have shed weight, and my face in particular looks quite different.

“Are you still ‘well’?”

In general I remain in good health. I’ve continued to work all the way through the fast, at times I’ve worn myself out, which was unwise. In general the main problem has been lack of energy, I have certainly suffered from a loss of energy, and at times I just feel weak. I have deliberately cut down the amount of exercise I do, and have tried to be sensible about that. I needed this fast to be sustainable in the midst of what can be a pretty busy life. Internally my body continues to function well, although bowel movements have certainly slowed, and possibly now stopped – you cant blame the bowels for not moving if there’s nothing in them I guess.

The other issues I’ve had are sleep and temperature – I’ve slept less, at least an hour less per night which is a bit of a drag, and my sleep is more broken which is also annoying. It adds to my overall feeling of tiredness. And body temperature has been an issue at times, mostly I’ve been fine but sometimes I’ve just felt very shivery, and I have to wear more in bed in order to be warm enough. I’ve thanked God for the lovely warm jacket which I got just before the fast began, it’s been a real boon.

The one health issue I do have is that I have a slight problem if I get too hot, my blood pressure drops a lot and I am prone to passing out – I have noticed an increase in light headedness at times during the fast, and I think my blood pressure has gone down a bit, so I have to be extra careful about that generally, and about not getting too hot in particular, so no hot baths anymore.

Has it made you grumpy?”

In general no, I don’t think so, but from time to time it probably has. I think in some ways it’s made me a bit more manic, and I suspect there’s some survival instinct going on meaning that I will take decisions faster, think more clearly and be less tolerant of shilly shallying. I have a feeling that this has not made me the easiest person to live with at times, and I owe my family an awful lot for supporting me in this.

“Has it been a ‘spiritual experience’?”

Unlike other fasts which I have done (much shorter) for specifically ‘spiritual’ reasons, this was never intended as an exercise in prayerful asceticism.  This was always a practical thing, but to divorce those two concepts entirely would be wrong. So I would say that this hasn’t been the kind of transcendent experience one might expect if doing it as a time of concentrated prayer and meditation, but the spirituality of the mundane is not to be undervalued, and in that sense it has been a deeply spiritual experience. The focus of this fast has been (essentially) justice and peace – and the spirit of God is justice and peace – there is a clear link.

“What are you going to eat first when you stop?”

It will have to be a gentle soup diet to begin with, I don’t eat meat anyway, so that’s not an issue, but I’ll have to have vegetable soup for the first few days at least until my internal organs can handle being filled again, then it will be simple things like a bit of scrambled egg, and stuff with plenty of fibre in. My first real meal will probably be a Mung bean soup, which is a traditional way to break a fast in certain Indian cultures, as it has particular restorative qualities.

“What has kept you motivated?”

Knowing that this is a much bigger issue than some temporary discomfort of my own, and that in doing this I am helping to raise the general awareness of that issue. The support and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues and strangers has been really great too. A consistent prayerful approach has helped me stay focused for the most part, and also a bit of sheer bloody mindedness hasn’t hindered me, nor has a latent competitive instinct if I’m really honest.

Overall the main thing to understand is that this is entirely achievable with the relevant preparation and motivation. One needs to understand that there are periods when it is hard, and periods when it is really quite easy. The idea in my mind is not to pay too much attention to either of these two things, and just to be present in the moment that I am in. I liken it to climbing a cliff, or walking a ledge – just don’t look down. If you do then it scares the living daylights out of you. I occasionally catch a glimpse of the fact that I have not eaten anything for a month, and that seems extraordinary to me, then I remember just to continue the fast. It’s a lot like meditation actually, just be there in a meditative state, retain no thought, resist no thought, resent no thought. I use meditation as part of my personal spiritual practice and perhaps that discipline has been a help.

“What has been the hardest thing about it?”

The hardest thing about this whole fast has been the impact it has had at home – no more date night meals for Kelly and I, no special meal for our wedding anniversary which fell on day 31, fewer family meals around the table and so on. I have felt that loss keenly, and I know Kelly has too. That has felt at times selfish and unfair, and I don’t feel good about it.

However, there is a much bigger issue at stake, an issue of justice, and I focus on that, knowing we will be able to make up for some lost time afterwards.

So there you have it, I think there was only once when I seriously doubted I would complete this fast, in the main I’ve just managed to plod along. I’m still not ruling out introducing some thin vegetable soup, or Miso soup or something in the last few days if I grow very weak, but I can see the finish line and I’m plodding towards it. See you on the other side!

 

 

How Grimsby really went to war with Channel 4 over Skint

This blog is a response to the article in the Guardian on Tuesday 1st of April, by the journalist Helen Pidd.

Helen is a good journalist, and while I’m glad she wrote the piece, there are a few things which I think need to be addressed – apart from a couple of factual inaccuracies there are also some wider points made in the balanced article which could do with some attention.

Firstly to set the scene, for some months some of us in Grimsby have been working hard to prevent KEO films, a  production company that prides itself on an apparently ‘ethical’ stance, from making a new series of the ‘documentary’ Skint in Grimsby.

The first series of Skint was set in Scunthorpe, and while the talk was of documentary, the reality was much more about tabloid style journalism. Individuals felt they had been misrepresented and lied to by producers, communities felt let down by empty promises. And the whole country got to have a chuckle about the ridiculous behaviour of the benefit class preceriat who inhabit ‘the town with a swear word in its name. A whopping 2.8 million viewers got to see the residents of the Westcliff estate as they went about the daily lives of the urban underclass.

Reviews were mixed, and confusing: “It’s funny, fair, frank.” Said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian, while in the Telegraph Neil Midgely warned: “Presenting difficult topics on TV is one thing – presenting them as soap opera is quite another.”

But on one thing we can agree, that Channel 4 had a hit on their hands, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Kirsty and Phil engaged in a campaign to raise the property price bubble to breaking point.

The main Grimsby resident that Helen quotes is the Rev John Ellis, a man who has a hard won reputation for tenacity and drive, and whose Shalom youth project is a beacon of what real urban ministry among the dispossessed can look like. John is a friend who I admire greatly, and whose opinion on this I dispute totally.

He has spent almost as long as I have been alive working in this area, and it would be foolish to discount his experience and insight, but nonetheless I believe he has fallen for the spin of producers who are full of talk of ‘giving people their voice’ and allowing them to ‘tell their story’. What I know as a former hack myself is that this is tabloid 101. This is exactly what you say to get over the doorstep in any difficult situation – it’s precisely how I myself got over many a doorstep, although I hope I never exploited that opportunity as some do.

The truth is that the story is not going to be told just how the individuals want them to be told, they are not going to be in on the editorial decision making – they are the raw material, they are Foucault’s ‘bio power’ for the media machine. It’s their antics which are going to get Channel 4’s next ratings hit, not their grimy back story.

John says that his community is more ‘oppressed’ than deprived, he’s right – although the former is actually a consequence of the latter. He also says that he doesn’t think his community members are best described as ‘vulnerable’: “You keep hearing them being called ‘vulnerable’, but believe me, many are as vulnerable as a Sherman tank. They’re no shrinking violets by any means. They want their stories told.”

I’m one of those who do think many of these individuals are vulnerable, vulnerable precisely because they have been oppressed, vulnerable because they are addicted, vulnerable because they are poor, vulnerable because they are hungry. They are vulnerable because for many people, their whole lives have been lived under the shadow of domination by others, whether it’s an abusive or neglectful parent, a violent partner, a government (series of actually) who have chosen to ignore them or just didn’t know how to help them. They have had little or no recourse to self determination, and then along comes a media company keen to find another ratings winner in austerity Britain, which offers them a chance to ‘tell their story’.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the real story has to be told about this area, about towns and cities and village all across the country where people are living in squalor and poverty – about how people in the seventh richest country in the world can be going hungry, and about how children are growing up in environments where they are neglected and left with no aspiration or hope for the future and turn instead to the easy comforts and short term solutions of drugs, alcohol and crime.

Grimsby is a town which has certainly suffered as it has de-industrialised. Many parts of it are tired and run down, many parts of it are deprived or oppressed. On my own estate (Nunsthorpe) some houses are boarded up or derelict, and crime stats are depressing at times. This is a place at the sharp end of savage government cuts, and a place where thanks to cheap housing, people often move to – although not so often because they are in hope of a job. It’s also a place which is at the forefront of some emerging industries, particularly the renewables sector, and parts of the catering sector too, there are many exciting creative projects,and some wonderful creative people. There are good points about living here, and there are bad ones. A real documentary series might demonstrate that, and it might demonstrate the fact that some people do feel so desperate about the oppression they under that they make very poor choices indeed. They are a minority of the population, but they are real.

But lets be clear, that is not what Skint is going to do, to extend the Sherman tank metaphor a little, the very facade of strength and impenetrability that the oppressed and vulnerable build up to defend themselves against further attack will be used against them. The Sherman’s nickname of ‘Tommy Cooker’ for the way that they could be set on fire is apposite.

Now it could be that in the aftermath of the huge media fallout that followed ‘Benefit’s Street’ the next series of Skint takes a different tack, and actually does try to tackle some of the real issues, and tells some genuine stories – that is what I hope it will do. But to expect it is far too much. It’s narrated by an actor with a stereotypical ‘Northern’ voice, not by John Pilger.

The inaccuracies in Helen Pidd’s article are to do with the involvement of Steve Chalke in the public meeting which Helen attended. She cites Katie Buchanan of KEO Films as saying that “The Nunsthorpe public meeting had been convened by Steve Chalke, a charismatic Anglican pastor who runs over 40 schools under the Oasis banner, including one on James Turner Street.”

Perhaps this is Ms Buchanan’s misapprehension rather than Ms Pidd’s, but it’s quite wrong. Firstly the meeting was convened by Grimsby residents, I know for I am one of them. In fact I invited Steve, who is also my boss, and arranged the meeting at a school in which I work.

Secondly Chalke is not an Anglican pastor, he is a Baptist minister, and he doesn’t run any schools, he founded a charity under which an arm operates which does. Perhaps these are insignificant – but I don’t think so entirely, it shows me that Ms Buchanan at least, and perhaps Helen Pidd, haven’t been paying attention to my own correspondence with them, a particular shame with regard to Ms Buchanan whom I invited to the meeting personally, and explained the context fully. If she cant even get my story right in one paragraph when it was spelt out clearly in black and white, what hope do the residents of the oppressed areas of Grimsby have in a ratings chasing televised series?

Personally I strive to be even handed in this debate, I don’t try to pit one side against another, I haven’t backed calls for road signs with ‘get out channel 4’ or anything else. I believe in a free press, I believe in a society where people should be able to express themselves. But I don’t believe that is what is on offer here, and nor do many others, which is why I and others are at a kind of war with Channel 4.

But as it happens I don’t like using the rhetoric of warfare, I don’t really approve of the use of war as a metaphor in this way, it helps to embed an idea of war as normality in our thinking.

And in reality there is not one voice about this issue in our town, there are a large and vocal group of people who oppose the series, there are a smaller and vocal group who welcome it, and there are the vast majority who don’t much care – in reality it will be them who make the running.

The fallout from Skint will be something that I have to live with and work amongst, as it will be for John Ellis and others of us who have committed ourselves to the betterment of our communities. Ours will be the legacy of children who are kept off school, or ‘good’ families who move away from stigmatised areas, or families at war with themselves, or neighbours who never speak again. Long after Channel 4 have gone, and empty promises from local politicians with no money or mandate to deliver them are blown away like sand, there will remain those of us who don’t believe that its right to blame the symptoms for the causes, or to set up targets to be knocked down to spare the blushes of a political class living in times of austerity.

(Edited 4/4/14 to remove typo from line one where it read ‘Kidd’ instead of ‘Pidd’ which will teach me to wear my glasses while writing.)

Food and money

raspberriesI am almost at the halfway point of the fast, after tomorrow there will be fewer days to do that have already been done, and the golden moment when I can eat again will be approaching rapidly.

Of course there is still some way to go, twenty days is not a short amount of time to fast.

But yet again this highlights to me the immense privilege I have in such a defined period of not eating.

I was able to prepare for it, take it on as a mental and physical challenge, and then look forward to a definite ending point.

I am also able to reassure people that: ‘If I get ill, I will stop’. All the while knowing that the likelihood of me falling ill is remote in the extreme.

As I have noted previously, those who go without food for reasons of poverty have none of these advantages. And the likelihood of them falling ill is significantly higher.

Another startling thing I have noted during this fast is the link between food poverty and crime. It is obvious when you think about it – we’re existing in a place of plenty, where window displays scream ‘consume consume’ and most people’s cupboards groan with edible things from all around the world.

For the hungry man or woman it must seem incredibly tempting to pocket something.

And that is happening – to a much greater extent than before. In North East Lincs the rate of shop thefts which are just food, has gone up to a massive 46%. In my book, that is as close as it needs to be to half of all shop thefts.

The police say that the vast majority of these crimes are due directly to food poverty.

And it’s not just here, a quick web search throws up stories from around the country about people who have been arrested for shoplifting food, often petty things like the man from South Shields who stole a pot noodle and a chocolate bar after a relationship breakdown left him homeless and broke. Or the down-on-his-luck teenager from Galashiels who stole muffins worth £2.00 from Asda. While the first was let off, the second received a four month sentence.

It’s not quite Jean Valjean territory – but we’re heading in the right direction.

Police have now been warning some time, of the rise in shoplifting from first time female offenders, all the more notable given that shoplifting is a male dominated crime.

One study in an area of Northern England showed that officers had stopped 26 first-time shoplifters, compared with five the previous year. Twenty of the people arrested were women, and 11 of the 26 incidents were low-value, food-related thefts.

A nationwide crime survey revealed a 4% rise in shoplifting, amid an overall 10% drop in crime.

For all the talk of economic recovery and budget giveaways, there is still little sign of any let up in the hardship faced by an increasing number of single people and families who are finding a way of scratching an existence amid the empty cupboards and grumbling stomachs of austerity Britain.

And that means that more and more desperate people will commit criminal acts, often while operating on low blood sugar and going through difficult and deeply unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from food.

I certainly accept that until the financial problems in our country are sorted out, there will be no end to this crisis, but whatever one’s approach to this matter, it is obvious that many people need help now, and they aren’t getting it.

Two sides of the same coin

doughnut“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Dom Hélder Câmara.

Walking along the road at the moment, I’m finding myself more than usually aware of the food litter which is left in the street.

It’s primarily wrappings from cheap food, and that reminds me of how easy it is to get hold of relatively inexpensive foodstuffs, which satisfy some immediate cravings for salt and sugar in particular.

But the flip side of this cheap food is that what it really does is further increase the body’s cravings for more of the same – the empty calories in a high fat, high sugar item for example don’t give the body what it needs.

It makes me wonder if this is why hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin in our society.

Those who I speak to who have experienced genuine food poverty are often not immediately identifiable as people who have gone without food. And yet I was speaking only this morning to a mother who told me how, on and off for nearly a year she had to skip meals altogether, or eat a slice of toast at family meal times in order to be able to feed her children properly. That particular lady does not look starved.

There is an epidemic of effectively toxic food in our society, highly processed, often lacking in any kind of nutritional value and full of addictive sugars, fats and salt. Coincidentally enough the off the shelf products are often at or close to the delicious 50% fat 50% sugar ratio which seems to be uniquely irresistible.

And processed food is cheap, relatively at least. For your pound you can get what appears to be a lot more from a packet of something than you can from vegetables, and for a lot less effort. But these foods are cleverly designed to addict their consumers, who like any addict want the same thing more and more often.

This again is another form of profiteering from hunger – make food appear cheap and yet ensuring that it leaves its consumer hungry for more.

A friend who works in maternal health notes that the biggest problem faced by those in his profession is obesity in young women. This is responsible for many of the problems that health professionals face, and yet it is a problem allowed to grow more or less unchecked under the guise of ‘personal choice’.

But the issue is huge, drawing as it does on a form of oppression of the underclass.  Recognition by multinationals that lack of awareness and education is often a characteristic of the less well-off means simple marketing can leave people hooked on empty calories and growing more and more unwell as a result.

Not only does this put a massive corporate burden on the NHS, but it also leads, in individuals, to the kind of food cravings which drive impulse buying. Impulse buying in itself is one of the causes of individual and family budget failures, and leads, directly, to poverty and hunger.

Those wrappers, I now recognise, are not only a symptom of over consumption, they are also a cause of hunger.

Read the first blog reflecting on my fast here, and get involved with the End Hunger Fast campaign here.

Profiting from hunger?

file0001556043806The End Hunger Fast campaign has three principle concerns. We are calling on the government to ensure it provides a robust last line of defense for those who find themselves without resources, to ensure that work actually pays enough for people to live on, and to prevent companies from profiting from hunger.

The question, how would companies profit from hunger, and why?

The second part of that question is the easiest, to make profits and thereby enrich shareholders.

But as for how – that is slightly more complicated.

The easiest way to demonstrate how this works is by looking at Glencore – one of the worlds largest commodities trader. Glencore makes its massive profits by speculating, gambling, on the prices of commodities. Commodities in this sense are raw materials or agricultural products which can be sold or traded on international markets. So they could be Gold, lead, rice, wood, etc.

What gives Glencore an unusual advantage in this speculation is that it is a ‘vertically integrated’ company – in other words it doesn’t just sell the commodities, it also produces them, in enormous quantities. It controls for instance 50% of the world’s copper market, which means it has a particular ability to control the supply of that important commodity.

But Glencore doesnt just operate in mining – it also owns hundreds of thousands of hectares of farm land – which means that it has an ability to directly impact the price of cereal crops.

“A disturbing amount of price increases, I fear, is being driven by speculative activity,” Marcus Miller, a professor of international economics at the University of Warwick, told Al Jazeera. “Bets [on future price rises or declines] can become self-fulfilling if you are big enough to affect the market.”

Glencore is a perfect example of a company which can directly profit from hunger – as food prices go up due to the scarcity of wheat or corn or rice, a scarcity which they can to some extent manipulate through their agricultural activities – so their stocks soar. To put it crudely, starvation is good for business.

For forty days through Lent I will be fasting from food to draw attention to issues like this – my personal fast is alongside that of others, and is supported locally by friends from the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist communities among others.