Sunday 6 November 2022

Here too

There are areas of deprivation in Edinburgh, their residents dubbed "the socially excluded." They can be dangerous even to travel through, and one night when I was travelling home on the Rough Bus a rock came flying through a window. Some of the socially excluded enjoy throwing things at symbols of the ordered society from which they feel excluded: busses, police cars, ambulances. 

Therefore, I was not terribly surprised yesterday evening when our driver suddenly stopped the bus before driving through a notorious slum and shouted at us to shut the windows. I reconsidered our seats but decided they were relatively safe from flying rocks. The sky was bursting with fireworks and dark silhouettes were thronging the streets. It was Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night, allegedly the celebration of "papists" failing to blow up the House of Lords in 1605, as if anyone living in an Edinburgh slum could care less about the House of Lords. A goodly number of them are themselves papists---or descended from us anyway. 

Sadly, this is supposed to be a fun night for children, and the only reason why I can imagine for its continued celebration. At heart, it is deeply anti-Catholic--they used to burn the Pope instead of poor Guy in effigy, the weather is cold and/or damp, the night is dark, and who needs a bonfire to warm himself when he has, at very cheapest, a microwave oven to heat his tea? In past years, the bonfires have represented an orgy of destruction; one Bonfire Night a gang built an enormous blaze on Portobello Beach and threw in a piano. 

I felt a bit uneasy, thinking about a neighbouring family who, for the first time ever, I saw walking together, two parents, two children, down our street as we waited at the bus stop, probably bound for some official Bonfire Night fireworks display. 

Our slums, by the way, are mainly populated by "White, Scottish" (as the Census denotes them) although there are a number of immigrants from various countries there, now, too. I hope their White, Scottish neighbours warned them about Bonfire Night. I saw a trio of Indonesian ladies in hijab get off the bus at a spot I should not like to alight after dark, and I hoped they got home okay. 

We were going to a concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. It was held last night in the Canongate Kirk, the official church of the Royal Family when they are in residence at Holyrood Palace. The church was comfortably full of the kind of people one would expect to find at an Edinburgh G&S performance: quiet, orderly, companionable, some wearing tweed jackets, some draped in silk scarves.

I mention this for contrast. 

After the performance, at which we recognised seven friends or so, we went to the Tollbooth Tavern with five of them and had a pint (or, in my case, a half-pint) of ale. We talked about 18th century Chinese wallpaper and ecclesiastical vestments.  

Benedict Ambrose and I got back on the Rough Bus at about 10:45.

This time the driver told us that he would be deviating from the route and that anyone who wanted to go to [slum] would have to get off at the last stop before his detour. This understandably disconcerted the passengers, some of whom were foreign students. However, Benedict Ambrose and I were merely annoyed by the delay (the driver seemed to get lost twice or thrice), suspecting and then knowing--I checked the news on my phone--that the point was to avoid the slum, which had been locked down by police. 

It was very dark, indeed, and it was difficult to see the bus stops. We rang the bell a trifle late for ours, so we alighted further from our home than we expected. The driver, B.A. thought, was rather frazzled. As he said so, I heard loud wailing. A youngish man in a hoodie was lurching down the other side of the street, one hand held to his torso, making gulping noises and occasionally bursting into noisy sobs. I couldn't see his face, but I had the fleeting impression that it was bloody. 

"Ambulance?" I suggested, but Benedict Ambrose thought that the man was merely drunk. He was, after all, still on his feet. We scurried--well, I scurried--home. 

I could write here at great length what I think is fuelling the rage of the socially excluded in Scotland, but instead I'm going to the gym to prepare my body for the old age that may leave me vulnerable to the fury of the young, Scottish and poor. I will throw out three concepts for exploration later: the breakdown of the family; consumerism; celebrity culture--especially celebrity culture. Jack and Lewis will never live like Kanye West, and they think they've been robbed. 

They have been robbed, in fact, but not of Bel Air mansions and babes. But that's a subject for later, for I'm off to the gym.

Saturday 5 November 2022

Plastic not fantastic

Conservation must be led by conservatives.

I received an SMS of approval from Polish Pretend Son, who lauded the anti-plastic part of my last post. He pointed out, however, that he saw a lot of plastic in my flat when he and his family came to stay last summer. 

They, in contrast, have been successful in eliminating almost all plastic from their daily lives, and I must admit I was charmed to meet the farmer who brings them their milk in glass bottles and tells them the latest countryside gossip, e.g. it was the Russians who poisoned the Oder river.  

Pretend Daughter-in-Law is a stay-at-home mother, which I mention because living a plastic-free, natural food, anti-sugar life depends on a lot of household work. I recall a very interesting lunch conversation in another traditional Catholic household, seven very mannerly children chowing down around the table, in which the father discussed environmentalists' reluctance to admit that the fulfilment of their eco-dreams would require women to leave the salaried workforce. Polish Pretend Son is, so far, not anti-fuel, so his wife takes a car to the rural butcher to load up on the high-quality organic meat. I wonder how long it would take to get there by bicycle, and I hope she does not attempt it. 

But these are idle thoughts. The fact is that there is indeed a lot of plastic in our flat, mainly in the kitchen (if we don't count the polyester carpets) because we have expelled most of it from the bathroom. We buy unpackaged soap and my conditioner bars come in cardboard. Add some eco-toothpaste and a bamboo toothbrush for B.A., and the bathroom will be an eco virtue signal in itself, impressing even Polish Pretend Son. But the kitchen... The kitchen is another can of polyethylene terephthalate. 

Therefore, one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2023 will be to cut down the plastic waste in the kitchen, even though it seems that Scotland (or Edinburgh, at least) is serious about actually recycling the stuff. Still, a ton of packaging is not exactly the closed system that my new online guru Paul Kingsnorth talks about. Not that I think a closed system is yet possible in a city--but please let me know if I am wrong. 

So far I have eliminated cookie trays by making cookies. Sadly, butter is £1.99/250g, so my homemade plastic-free cookies cost twice as much as the on-sale cookies B.A. was bringing home. At this point, Polish Pretend Son would make a surly remark about the horrors of sugar, about which he would be correct, but the homemade cookies are more satisfying, so they last longer. 

The reason why I am banging on about plastic again is because I am a conservative and think  conservation of the earth should not be left to liberals, who might not be able to do it alone, or at all. In Edinburgh the most headlining grabbing effort on behalf of "the environment" recently was conducted by a group of vegan adult children who dumped milk on the floor of a Waitrose supermarket for the employees to mop up. Well, there's no use crying over spilled milk, but who could take such people seriously? What the world needs are people who are not interested in theatrics but in facing cold, hard (and soft, warm) reality.  

Any suggestions on eliminating household plastic waste? 

Wednesday 2 November 2022

Healthy Limits

This is what 50 looked like for me (plus lipstick)

When I was young and thin and angry, I worked in a passport office, which meant that I knew how old all the applicants were. The contrast between women who had recently turned 40 interested me; I discerned two groups, whom I dubbed "The Hockey Moms" and "The Fighters." 

The Hockey Moms had short hair, wore glasses, were dowdies. The Fighters dyed their long tresses, applied makeup, presumably wore contact lenses, and dressed well. The Hockey Moms were soft; the Fighters were sharp. I worked out for 3 hours a day, every second day, ate a low-fat diet, and weighed 117 lbs. I was definitely on the side of the Fighters in that I planned to be one when I were as old as they.

Now I am a decade past 40 and five pounds overweight and a lot happier than I was as a 20-something. I have long hair (albeit greying), which I rather eccentrically braid most of the time, but I wear glasses and I have largely given up make-up. I wear gym clothes to the gym but wear long skirts into town. I am trying to imagine how I will appear to the 20-somethings in the North York passport office when I get my own passport renewed. Not a Hockey Mom--and my apologies to real Hockey Moms, by the way--but not a Fighter either. 

However,  they would be wrong. I have become another kind of Fighter--not a woman who fights Nature for herself but a woman who fights herself for Nature. I wear glasses and eschew make-up because I can't justify to myself the mandatory use of plastic these entail. It wasn't just the solution bottles that weighed upon my conscience and fill the earth; it was the lenses themselves and their hygienic little plastic packets. I still have a lipstick on the go; we'll see if I can hold out against the temptation to buy another when it's done. 

And that points away from the one personal battle against plastic to the Great War humans are fighting against the boundaries of what it is to be human. We are part of Creation--called to be the stewards of Creation--but we carry on as if we were gods. We trespass over every border we encounter, and I can think of no more obvious example of this than engaging in in vitro fertilisation; I'm too used to the concept of murder. It is written on our hearts that it is for Almighty God to decide when a human life ends; it is necessary only now to assert that it is Almighty God's prerogative to decide how a human life begins. 

(This is not to dunk on so-called test tube babies themselves, by the way. They are just as innocent of their origins as babies conceived in rape.)

Another bizarrely god-like thing we're doing lately is attempting to turn boys into girls, men into women, and vice versa. Our God never did such a thing; it was Hera who, according to the story, turned Teresius into a woman and then back into a man. Yes, there are very rare exceptions to the rule (baby boys with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome brought up believing they are girls), but otherwise it is impossible for a male to become a woman or for a female to become a man.  

So far so Catholic, but what about the war against ageing I found so compelling when I was young?

Attempting to appear younger than we are by whatever means is an age-old pursuit, and as we in the West have always prized youth in women, growing old gracefully--by which I mean willingly--is decidedly counter-cultural. But I think this is something worth exploring because there is a real limit to youth and a limit to which we should go in attempting to transgress the borders. We wouldn't bathe in the blood of virgins, but have you checked that your skin cream doesn't include fetal cells? Saint Thomas Aquinas was not keen on cosmetics except to cover real disfigurement; I can only imagine what he would have made of Neocutis.

If any of this talk of limits sounds faintly familiar, it will be because this post was inspired by Paul Kingsnorth's Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. I heartily recommend this book--with the caveat that he wrote it before he (spoiler alert) converted to Christianity, so expect some mild rudeness about religious faith. Naturally Kingsnorth did not write about Woman's fight against aging (or, for that matter, her fertility or her infertility or her genetics or men who call themselves women). However, he is very keen on the idea of human beings keeping within the limits of humanity and not continuing carrying on as if we were gods, treating the rest of Creation as if we were the terrorists of Mount Olympus. 

Tuesday 1 November 2022

What do you want for Christmas?

November at last! I've been looking forward to the first moment it would not be indecent to write about the great Christian feast of wintertide, and All Saints Day is it. I've got time to do it, too, for I am going to the 10 AM Mass at the Cathedral and therefore have blocked off the morning. 

This year we're going to Canada for Christmas, and so we let the October 31 deadline for economy-class Yuletide packages pass us by. I also felt liberated from the need to buy presents during our Canadian Thanksgiving weekend holiday in the Borders. Last year we went to Cambridge, and I bought three bulky Cambridge U sweatshirts that were surprisingly popular with their recipients. At least, they wear them on our Skype calls. I am gratified because who wants to spend money on a dud gift?

I find buying Christmas presents incredibly stressful, and so I have worked out strategies to cut down on the cortisol. The first is to remind myself that only the gifts to the children have to be successful; the adults have their own money and if anyone asks them what they got for Christmas, it will be asked in a jokey fashion. The second is to count up how many people should get presents this year (the meter starts at 13) and budget. The third is to ask the principal 13 (or their parents) what they want for Christmas. 

This number, incidentally, includes me, and I know what I want Benedict Ambrose to get me for Christmas, and I know what he wants for Christmas, so that's two down, 11 to go. Actually, B.A. is in charge of buying his mother's present, so as far as I'm concerned, that's three down, 10 to go. 

And here is where I make my great appeal to my family--and to Christian society as a whole--to think of reasonably priced things you would like for Christmas. Now that I have thoroughly grown up and shot down deep roots into reality, I realise that the answer "Oh, I really don't know" is not a particularly kind answer to the question "What do you want for Christmas?"

Paradoxically, it is easier to know what you want for Christmas if you are in an economic downturn, or madly overpaying the mortgage, or a voluntary minimalist. What you want is something that you think is just a tiny bit too expensive for what it is, e.g. the really good coffee you bought when it was £5.50 but is now £7 a bag. Perhaps your gas bill was (she checks) £116 this month, and you would quite fancy a humorous draught excluder shaped like an overly long dachshund. Perhaps the cover of your hot water bottle is looking sad, and it would be lovely if your sister, a keen knitter, would knit you one shaped like an owl or some other homely creature. Perhaps you are worried about the Three Days of Darkness and want some beeswax candles to take to the priest for a blessing on Candlemas. Whatever you want, it surely does not cost more than £30/$34.61 US/$46.90 Canadian. (Holy cats! What has Trudeau done to you?) At very least, it does not cost more than the gifts you are giving to fellow adults. 

(That said, in 2020 I asked my parents for a wool cardigan from my favourite Edinburgh shop which definitely cost more than £30, and I wore out the delicate elbows within months. I am not proof against sudden bursts of Advent greed, but I'm trying.)

But anyway my point is to make life easy for the person who asks "What do you want for Christmas" by writing a Christmas list that does not at all resemble the Wish Lists you wrote as a penniless child but is tailored to the wallets of the givers. Tick off the presents as the askers ask. For example, when my youngest brother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him for two years running that I wanted beeswax candles--which I sincerely did. I was delighted when they arrived, and I hope I get more this Christmas, hint hint.

One thing for sure: I do not believe that anyone can magically read minds--although they might be unusually good at taking hints--so nobody should expect any loved one to know what his or her tastes are. (This is particularly true when you have been divided for three years by the shocking regulations of suddenly totalitarian states.) Instead, one should imagine the loved one at a loss in a frantic, tinselled, cookie cutter mall in a state of panic and confusion and feel a chivalrous desire to spare him or her that horror. 

I recommend a person-centred Christmas list that puts your loved one in the centre, with what you will volunteer to them as a present for yourself on the right side, and what they told you they would like on the left, e.g. 

That Book He Wants----->Benedict Ambrose----> Those Made-in-England gloves I will tell him about. 

A bonus: if you tell each person something different, you are unlikely to get the same thing from everyone. You might be happy to have multiples, but the wind might be taken out of the gift-givers' sails.

So be prepared. Make a list of little presents you would like to receive  and be sure to ask your loved ones what they want (if you are very brave, add "Under £30/$35/ $47") well in advance for Christmas. If this week they say, "I haven't thought about it" be sure to ask them again in 2 weeks. If they don't get back to you before the second Sunday of Advent, I recommend beeswax candles. But then, I love beeswax candles and if there are rolling blackouts this winter (or WORSE, see above) they will come in handy.