Peace and love in Israel: is it possible?

When I visited Israel at the beginning of 2020, everything seemed fairly peaceful, although there was a rumour going round that a nasty new virus was becoming a threat. At the airport they asked us if we had been to China. We hadn’t.

We stayed in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, from where we visited Caesarea Philippi. It was the furthest north we went, and according to the Bible, the furthest north Jesus took his disciples. From there we could see into Syria and Lebanon, and we were told that the area was closely monitored because of the latent threat from across the borders. 

Later we sailed on the Sea of Galilee. It was a moment of memorable calm and beauty. 

Eventually we travelled further south and stayed in Bethlehem, where we met – unsurprisingly – many Palestinians. If we had stayed in Bethlehem another couple of days, we would not have been able to leave easily, because it was locked down. Covid had arrived.

From then on we had our own problems, but the problem within Israel/Palestine was ongoing. And it will remain ongoing because men of violence want it to be. The history of the land is complicated, and no-one is completely innocent. It is undeniable that many Jews and Arabs would happily live side by side – and have done so over the years. Many would be happy with a two-state solution, but this is rejected by Arab leaders even though the projected Palestinian portion of the country has always been much larger. 

In the end this is a typical case of wanting it all, and in order to get it all, generating hate and violence, not caring whether your own people suffer in the process. Few people are happy with the current relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, but the military readiness and restrictions have been forced on the Israelis because they have been repeatedly under attack. Undoubtedly some Israelis have taken advantage of this, but most just want to live in peace. 

And how do you live in peace with someone who hates you? The obvious way is by showing strength in defence. Watch the usual spaces. 

But I suppose that as a Christian my answer – much, much easier said than done – is to show them love. Of course we know what happens then. Jesus was a Jew, after all. He was also a Palestinian. Someone could get crucified. The question is, do we believe in resurrection? 

Short fingers and a beautiful poet

I have short fingers, which is bad for a number of reasons. If you’ve met me, you may not have noticed, and so I’m taking a risk in pointing it out, because longer fingers are quite attractive, and I don’t want to put you off.

The real problem with short fingers – apart from the aesthetic element – is that you can’t reach as much as people with longer fingers. The same goes for arms, but that’s another issue. I’ve noticed that weather presenters quite often have long fingers, possibly so that they can reach more parts of the country, although that doesn’t seem to improve the weather. Still, you can’t have everything.

My particular problem with having shorter fingers (or should I say length-challenged fingers?) is that it’s more difficult to play the guitar. I was always sort of aware of this, because the guitarists I admired (like Albert Lee) have noticeably long fingers.

So I struggle with bar chords. It’s not the only thing I struggle with, but it does make a big difference. Which is why, a few years ago, when the question arose of making a little music together during a historical project, a friend of mine asked me the astute question: “Can you play bar chords?”

Reader, I couldn’t. So the idea of my playing guitar with her was abandoned. This doesn’t mean I can’t play the guitar – indeed I do, regularly. But not in a professional sort of way. Obviously.

The astute friend in question was none other than prize-winning poet and singer Caroline Gilfillan, who I have collaborated with on a number of poetic, largely guitarless projects, and all that stuff about fingers is really an excuse to mention her here, because she died recently of cancer.

She wrote beautiful poetry and had the knack of winning prizes in many competitions, not because she had long fingers but because her use of words was magical. She was amazingly creative – splitting her time most recently between Norfolk and the Lake District, though she was born in Sussex and sang in women’s bands in London. She also wrote detective fiction.

Others who know her better will be able to say more, but it was a pleasure to be her friend for a while and to enjoy her company. These words she wrote in one of her poems fit her quite well, and they are words that I love and often repeat; so I am going to leave you with them, with love:

Under her cloak of skin she, too, pulses like intercepted light.
She too is rock and rolling out of sight.

You asked for it – or did you?

Consultations by public bodies have long been used as a rather obvious device to pretend that they are acting democratically. “Well, we did ask you,” they protest indignantly when questioned.

But of course we know the truth: consultations are presented in such a convoluted way that anyone wanting to protest just gives up trying, leaving the on-message working-from-home gangs – with time to kill and knowledge of the system – to pretend that they represent the majority.

Sometimes this blows up in the faces of the faceless bureaucrats (not easy, you have to admit). Recently low-emission zone schemes have provoked so much public anger and frustration that direct action has been taken – or plans have been reversed in the face of last-ditch anger from the normally silent majority. 

The Alliance of British Drivers is commendably alert to twisted bureaucratic behaviour. It points out that many CONsultations (get it?) are designed to produce the answers that councils want, citing a recent example, when people were asked  for their views on a council’s Climate Action Strategy. 

“Each question had four options to be rated in order of importance. Therefore anybody filling out the consultation had to rate one measure as the most important. If the participant thought all measures proposed were a waste of time and money (as many of our members would), they could not proceed to the next item. Therefore all completed surveys guaranteed full support for ‘climate action plans’.”

Councils are prominent in their use of such tricks of the trade, but “charity” pressure groups are similarly proficient and get very tetchy when they themselves are not consulted by the Government. But why should such single-issue groups get special treatment? We all know what they’re going to say. We also know that it may not be true, because they tend to confuse views with facts. In just the last few days it has been revealed that many of the “facts” presented to Parliament on wildlife trophy hunting were quite wrong; one prominent environmental group has been accused of twisting facts over the years, particularly over nuclear energy but also in other areas. Well, that’s all right. I’m sure we all do, because we have individual views, and facts are notoriously hard to establish. As individuals, though, we simply have a vote, and no special access to Government.

When the RSPB tweeted a particularly rabid rant at the Government, they attributed it to a junior employee “going rogue”. I’m not sure age is a factor, but Michael Deacon was right in the Daily Telegraph to zero in on the “insufferably self-righteous opinions” and “sanctimonious delusions” of many activists.

Most of us tolerate such things – but only up to a point. The point being roughly when the Government starts to believe them. Sadly, that point is reached more and more often.

The alternative reality at the end of the road

Life is hard, but it bounces. So while variously tinted media chew away at loosely disguised propaganda about the state of the nation – and indeed the world – there remains within our grasp an alternative reality, known usually as friendship.

This can easily be undervalued. A chat with a friend may not seem to yield much of substance, but there is a depth to it which builds up over the weeks and years. It does not depend at all on political agreement – some of my closest friends do not agree with me on issues that may in other circumstances seem critical. It does depend on kindness, on liking each other and, if this does not seem too extreme a term, love. 

A group of neighbours in our city street meet one day a week, outside (weather permitting), for a drink and a chat. We obviously have a lot in common. We live in the same part of the same cul de sac in the same city. But we also have a lot of differences. We come from different parts of the world; we have different skills. 

It started during covid, when one couple were kind enough to go to the supermarket for us for several months. It has developed into an eagerness to help each other and to just enjoy a talk now and again. As usual it depends to an extent on one person to keep it going – what we call the street meet, anyway – and it is not me. 

A church is another place where this sort of thing can happen – not surprisingly, since the whole of Christianity is based on love. Our own church is an example of an extraordinary and loving mix of people who are diametrically different in many quite startling ways. 

Outside of a physical environment like a street or a church (or a club), this sort of thing happens most often in a family, whether close or far-flung.

Last weekend our grandchildren – one of whom is at university, with the other (thanks to excellent results this week) about to go – came and stayed with us for a couple of nights. At the same time our friends from Canada, who were originally English, came to stay nearby. It so happens that these friends are also our grandchildren’s step-grandparents, through a process so unlikely that it is tempting to write a book about it. 

So what? It was a magical weekend. On the Saturday at Blakeney, Norfolk, we all gathered for a meal and an evening walk out on to the marshes, looking for meteor showers. And on the Sunday the non-Canada four of us took the opportunity to visit one of the places that held many childhood memories – Winterton, which to our delight was resisting, at least temporarily, the influx of the sea: the once-loved café has been replaced by three log cabin food and drink stalls that are so attractive that they were visited a few minutes after us by the actor Tom Hiddleston. It was in the paper. We shall no doubt be talking about the near-miss for some time. In a friendly sort of way.

Dirge from a disappointed driver

Can you remember when highways authorities saw it as their job to improve driving conditions? This seemed to work well for very many years, but now the worm has turned, and up-and-coming highways engineers seem to see it as their job to make life as difficult as possible for motorists. I imagine this is for environmental reasons. 

Or maybe it’s to get their own back on all those elderly people who find cars essential to reach shops, church, friends and so on. After all, most of us survived lockdown; so why not carry on staying at home? Meanwhile the structure of the city is changed to make life easier for those young and fit people who ride scooters and bikes – and who ride them much faster than we used to, because we only had three gears.

In my home town of Norwich the only route through the centre of the city has been closed to cars. Meanwhile two key road junctions have been blocked simultaneously for weeks, for work that seems considerably less than essential. But even if it is essential, why does it take so long? We are being lulled into accepting ridiculously long periods for a road to be out of action.

Meanwhile the police close roads for the most trivial of accidents that could be dealt with simply and quickly. And speed limits are getting slower and slower for no good reason. Slowness does not save lives: in many cases it makes roads more dangerous, provoking a lack of concentration and increasing frustration.

To increase my sense of claustrophobia the council has now decided that I cannot drive out of my cul de sac at all for two hours on Sunday because lots of people are running round the city. The fact that I need to get out during that precise time is neither here nor there. Well, it’s here, and not there.

Public transport? Good, if you live by a bus stop and want to get to another bus stop at a time when the buses happen to be running. But some of us oldies are not so mobile. In point of fact I live close to buses and a rail station; I can walk and can manage. But there are many for whom this is not true.

I don’t want to come over as having a victim mentality. But I can’t help thinking that things could be much better. Don’t get me started on the ludicrously shaped roundabouts on the NDR, for instance – they simply invite accidents. And what is the most urgent need on all our roads? Repairing potholes. Doesn’t seem to get much priority, does it? I wonder why.

Please get in touch with us – but it may not be easy

We all know by now how difficult it is to get hold of a doctor. I have got hold of a couple of nurses recently, and there is a lot to be said for that – in fact, some might say it is the better option. Quite exciting, even. As I only needed a blood test, I was certainly fine with it. It was a pleasant experience. 

I haven’t had the result of the tests yet, but that’s only to be expected. 

Fortunately I have not had to contact any civil servants recently; the newspapers are full of the ridiculously slow response time from various Home Office departments (if that’s what they are – they may have become detached); so I don’t need to add to that mountain of paperwork. Besides, I’m working from home.

There’s sadly very little you can do with people who won’t respond, or who make it difficult for you to do the simple thing you want to do. I would like to cancel my BT Sport subscription, but there is nowhere on the vast and varied BT website where you can do that. I am summoning up my reserves of strength to give them a ring.

This kind of thing extends even to the deceased, I discovered after my brother died just before Christmas. In due course I received a letter from the Bereavement Services department of my local council, which seemed nice. It mentioned certain services they could offer concerning the grave. 

There was no indication what you should do if you wanted this service, or wanted to know exactly what it was. Or didn’t. The only phone number given was the general council number, which I eventually rang. There was a queue, of course, but they rang me back a couple of hours later. Fortunately I was still at home.

After I explained what I wanted, they tried to put me through to the Bereavement Services department, but this proved impossible: they weren’t picking up. I would like to say the line was dead, but in the interests of accuracy, I can’t. It just kept ringing. 

Their preferred method of communication, a recording eventually  informed me, was by e-mail, which they gave at high speed. I got it, which must have been disappointing for them.

I wondered, since e-mail was their preferred method of communication, why they didn’t put their e-mail address on the letter they sent me. Presumably this would have been too straightforward. 

I e-mailed them, and got a fairly quick response. The letter gave some details (not all, of course), and included both their e-mail address and a direct line phone number, which they had presumably discovered somewhere, or just installed.

I am fairly resilient, but I can imagine some bereaved people might get quite upset by this sort of thing. Frustration can do funny things to you. So I have a small bit of advice for the council. You can ignore people who don’t have their bins collected, but do try to make things as easy as you can for people who have just lost a loved one. It’s not that hard, is it?

Don’t believe this: it’s just a headline

I remember the moment when I saw my first speed camera. It was in the early 1990s, on my way back to Norwich from Scotland. I was overtaking a lorry, and it flashed its lights at me. At first I thought the driver was just annoyed that I was passing him – some people are like that – but in fact he was warning me. As I regained the left-hand side of the road I saw a strange machine at the roadside ahead. Instinctively, I slowed.

I did not get fined. In fact, unbelievably, I have never been “caught speeding” by a camera. Either that, or I have a friend in high places who cancels all my transgressions before I am even aware of them. 

I certainly exceed the speed limit on occasion. So do you, unless you are a really bad driver. But with apologies to my friends in the media who believe otherwise, that is not speeding. Speeding is driving recklessly fast, so as to endanger the lives of myself or others. When the news machines report that speeding has increased over recent years, what they mean is that the speed limit has been exceeded more often, and people have been caught doing it. Not so easy to get into a headline, but there you are. 

Unsurprisingly, exceeding the speed limit happens more often when you keep lowering the speed limits, under the illusion that this is a safety measure. It would be interesting to know how many accidents have been caused by compulsively law-abiding people reluctant to accelerate, when that could have got them out of the danger zone. (And of course you have greater control of a vehicle when you’re accelerating than when you’re braking.)

I wrote headlines professionally for years; so I understand how it works. “Speed kills” is a great headline, but of course it isn’t true. Ask any physicist. “Twenty’s Plenty” is a lovely headline, but it’s not true either. Unfortunately most government is now done by headlines; so of course the move is towards 20mph speed limits, despite the fact that on nearly all roads they are totally unrealistic.

I have just been to Scotland again, and I am sad to report that driving in the Highlands has become less enjoyable. That is partly the fault of the tourism industry, which has lured convoys of motor homes on to the previously unspoilt acres of the North Coast 500. But it is also the creeping tendency to introduce speed cameras (mostly mobile ones, operated by unmarked police cars) on to certain routes. 

Is this civilisation? The beautiful A93, approaching Braemar from Balmoral, has an old sign reading roughly (I quote from memory) “No double white lines in centre of road”. This leaves the driver wondering what to do about it – pretend they are there or take advantage of the fact that they aren’t? This kind of thing lifts the spirits. 

Now, however, at close to the same spot, Auchallater Bridge, the highway authorities have installed traffic lights, when the only thing that makes them necessary is the space taken up by the lights themselves. Lights have not been needed there for decades. Why plonk them in now? Is this civilisation, or something even worse? Of course they produce queues, which means the road is more dangerous. Ho, hum. 

Are Highland roads dangerous anyway? They are quite tricky to drive because of the rises and falls and sharp corners, but if you drive there, you know that. In fact it makes you especially careful.

What really makes driving hazardous in the Highlands (as in many other places) is potholes. These have become so dangerous that even Masterchef contestants have been complaining about them, and I can report that the most eagle-eyed of us comes to grief occasionally. This is something that could be put right immediately, if only local authorities could get their priorities right. In case it helps to focus their minds, I will point out that potholes are extremely dangerous for cyclists.

As are speed bumps, another ludicrously dangerous invention. But I’ve said enough. Too much, probably.

Unexpected role of the King

In chess, the only piece that cannot be captured is the King. If he loses, he dies. Checkmate: the king is dead. There is no coronation. No funeral, either. 

The Queen, on the other hand, can be captured. But in her prime she controls the board, sweeping all others before her. Sound familiar?

The role of the King during the game (most games, anyway) is strangely negative. Usually he squirrels himself away, trying to stay safe while his subjects mop up the opposing army. It is only in the endgame – if things go so far – that he emerges, marching up the board to avenge his lost subjects and, in the ideal scenario, winning the day with the help of one or two of the survivors.

He cannot win the game on his own. If his army is annihilated, he is helpless. The most he can hope for is a peace treaty. 

What about the other pieces? The Bishops are restricted to only half the number of squares on the board, which seems theologically sensible. No-one wants Bishops popping up everywhere in a haphazard sort of way, like ill-considered Knights. 

Rooks (you may think of them as castles, but they come from the Persian word for a chariot) shoot up and down, and from side to side, which can be dangerous. Pawns only go forwards, which I suppose is what you want from an army, but they are the only piece that can be promoted, becoming any other piece except – you guessed it – a King. Just as well.

All this may come as a disappointment to Charles III, who is crowned this coming weekend. If he plays the game, we should expect him to hide away in a castle (or behind a chariot) for quite a long time while others get on with life and try to sort the country out. 

I feel this would be a Good Thing. If he emerges prematurely from hiding and tours the board, going to summits, interfering in tricky decisions and exposing himself to harm, he could come to rather rapid grief. So could those subjects who gather round trying to protect him. 

I am not suggesting he should stay at home till all his subjects get annihilated, of course; rather adopt a moderate, laid back approach and get a good rest at the same time. 

Somewhere like Balmoral, perhaps. Or Sandringham. You can get a good game of chess in Norfolk. 

Has artificial intelligence taken over already?

Artificial intelligence may be a real threat to mankind. So much so that Elon Musk is now diving into the whirlpool with the intention, he says, of combating the influence of potentially destructive left-leaning chatbots – in much the same way that he attempted to bring some balance and free speech to Twitter.

This would give us hope, he says. Others may disagree. Eliezer Yudkowsky, one of the world’s leading experts in machine intelligence, says we should shut down all AI research now, before AI shuts the human race down.

I am no expert in that area, but it occurs to me that AI – or whatever you want to call it– may already be shutting down humanity without our realising it. 

We are gradually becoming more and more obsessed with ludicrous, divisive issues, on which we are not allowed to comment in a sane way because certain words and phrases are becoming misrepresented as offensive. This kind of AI seems to be taking over schools, colleges and charitable organisations, as well as councils, broadcasters and the police. Innocent people are being victimised, apparently because they have human intelligence and not the carefully regulated, empty, dead-brained, barren artificial kind.

Fringe groups that should be banned because their sole aim is to disrupt society are given publicity. Yes, I’m talking about Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and their friends. Their actions are destructive, but so are their aims. Who in real life, thinks net zero is a good idea?

Well, loads of people actually, because artificial intelligence is infectious, and very, very good at propaganda – so much so that it seems to many that this destructive behaviour is really for the good of mankind, and anyone opposing it is selfish and arrogant, when in fact the opposite is the case. 

Politics no longer works, because we have no choice, except between various parties all crammed with artificial intelligence and saying roughly the same thing. Meanwhile, we have lost the war on words. Anyone using a sensible alternative route is now on a rat run. Anyone with an alternative point of view is a far-right conspiracy theorist. Climate crisis, anyone?

George Orwell, we need you now. 

The advantage of living on the edge

Many years ago – in the 1950s and 60s – I went to Hemsby a lot. We used to rent a bungalow in the dunes furthest from the sea, accessible by a road with interesting ups and downs. It was the way the greengrocer got to us, in the days when the entire shop came to you and not just parcels. 

There was no internet, of course, and there were no mobile phones, although there were rudimentary slot machines in the bright new emporium in the village. As I recall, you put an old penny in, and if you were successful, you got it out again. Pretty exciting. There was also a juke box, playing up-to-the-minute tunes like Last Train to San Fernando.

There were no trains to Hemsby, which is on the east coast of Norfolk, but there was a double-decker bus, which used to turn round in the field just down the road. Sometimes I used to go and watch it. I was easily amused, and quite happy, I seem to recall.

From our bungalow we had to negotiate a steep footpath to get to the sea. It went down into what we called The Valley, which was an area of grass, ferns and bushes where you could play football and cricket, or just sit out of the wind and have a picnic. The Valley ran from the centre of Hemsby (south a bit) up to Winterton (north a bit). It still does, actually. 

To reach the sea, you had to climb the other side of The Valley by a sandy footpath (there were a maze of them) and then – after surveying the wide expanse of beach before you, possibly with the help of a telescope – tumble down into the soft sand and, if you had time, walk to the sea. It was quite a trek. 

There were bungalows on that second stretch of dunes: you might pass them on your way to the sea, if you took certain paths. They are no longer there, because it is too dangerous. Further down the coast, similar bungalows have been falling into the sea with some regularity, because the sea is no longer miles away. It is eating away at that second row of dunes, and will soon break through. The Valley will be no more, and – well, you can guess the rest.

Climate change, I hear you say. Well, obviously the climate changes, but it may not be what you think. Two hundred years ago, for instance, I am told there were no dunes, and the lighthouse at Winterton, now a holiday home more than half a mile from the beach, was adjacent to it. 

The dunes built up and now, of course, the story is about erosion, and whether it can be stopped. The question that interests me, however, is why people choose to live on the edge. where they are clearly at risk. The answer turns out to be that it is beautiful. It is a conclusion I came to after visiting Santorini, where stunning homes decorate the rim of an extinct volcano – except that it isn’t extinct. It is simply dormant at the moment. Risky? I should say so. 

I rather admire people who live at Hemsby, even though it is not quite Santorini. And I do so because they are bucking the trend. The depressing truth about life in the 21st century – in the UK anyway – is that what concerns people most is staying alive. Health and Safety. Accident statistics. Ludicrously slow speed limits. 

I suspect this may be because so many people believe that this life is all there is. You might describe that as a dangerous delusion, and I would agree. If you spend most of your life trying to make sure you stay alive, what you are doing is refusing to live life as it should be lived. Jesus Christ said he came to bring abundant life – real life. Rainer Maria Rilke said: “Beauty’s nothing but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.” 

By “terror” he meant the deep reality beyond the deadly routine. Helen Keller, who should know, said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

I never thought of Hemsby like that. But I wish I had.