Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Reekie Linn

All 24 metres of Reekie Linn, near Alyth, on the River Isla.

Kite Flyer, Benone Beach

Book Notes: In Struggle - SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson

"In Struggle" is Clayborne Carson's book, chronicling the rise, achievements, development and disintegration of SNCC (known as "Snick"), the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee. SNCC was a unique member of the cluster of Civil Rights groups which fronted the African-American struggle for justice in the 1960s. Carson's work is meticulously researched drawing on both written and oral records, and his research is presented in passionate and eloquent prose. The story of SNCC itself was explosive and provocative, so it seems appropriate that Carson's scholarship is not dry and detached fact-collection, but embraces the turmoil of those times with academic history which is as compelling to read as a thriller.

The book opens in 1960, by which time the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, with the campaigns against segregation across the American South bringing names, places and events like Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, The SCLC and Martin Luther King Jr to prominence. The first stage of the movement was dominated by Christian-Gandhian non-violence deployed as a fundamental belief (not merely a tactic), and sought to appeal to the conscience of America to allow full participation in American life of all its citizens. Crucially the movement at this stage was interracial, and drew many Black and White idealistic students to the South to join lunch-counter desegregations, and other protests.

Among the bravest, most committed of these activists were those of SNCC, whose unashamed militancy took them on an inevitable collision course with entrenched white powers structures. While King and the SCLC used protest as a powerful negotiating tool, seeking to draw first Kennedy, then Johnson into enforcing violated federal desegregation laws, the SNCC staff threw themselves into projects like Black voter registration projects in rural Mississippi. SNCC was encouraged into life by SCLC staffers life Ella Baker who insisted from the start that this new younger movement be separate from the older clergy-led organisation. From the start SNCC produced undoubted heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, of whom the most well known is John Lewis. Lewis' work as an activist earned him countless beatings, imprisonments, and troubles, from being amongst the first of Freedom Riders, to being photographed while State Troopers cracked his skull with their nightsticks on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. (As I write, I have a framed print of that sobering image up in my study).

In Struggle contains a quite breathtaking account of these struggles, and SNCC's unique ability - not just to take huge risks in confronting injustice, but in grass-roots community activism. While other organisations had the ear of politicians, others worked with businesses, and others brought charismatic leadership to the movement, SNCC had a remarkable ability to develop effective programs in some of the most dangerous counties in the South - with an emphasis on individualism, and community-led (not leader-led) organisation. 

Carson reviews the different programmes and struggles which SNCC faced as they sought to educate through Freedom Schools, register Black voters in Mississippi, challenge the Democratic Party in Mississippi and seek economic gains from the freedoms achieved. His book does not present a one-sided glowing account of SNCC, as alongside his obvious admiration for these activists he recognises their struggles and limitations. The Freedom Summer voter registration projects in the deep South are rightly celebrated as major achievements of the African American community for democracy; but the book also examines the tensions within the movement, between the locals and incoming activists, and between Blacks and Whites.

Throughout the book Carson emphasises SNCC's radicalism and unwillingness to compromise on its goals of African-American advancement. It was SNCC's John Lewis who had to be restrained from an overtly militant speech which threatened to de-rail the great March on Washington. The militancy commitment of SNCC's staff often came with a huge personal cost attached too. Many SNCC staff operated in great danger from the authorities, Klansmen, White Citizens Councils, and sometimes all of these in cahoots. They were also barely paid, and so legendary SNCC community organisers such as Charles Sherrod, Bob Moses, or Bob Zellner lived on very little, as they worked.

Having read several histories of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, such as "Bearing the Cross"; David Garrow's history of King and the SCLC; it was interesting to read something about their more radical critics from within the movement. Repeatedly, interpretations of the same events were handled differently. One example is their relative responses to the Albany Campaign in Georgia in 1961 when SNCC, SCLC and others mounted a massive campaign to desegregate the city - against determined opposition from the City and its police chief Laurie Pritchett. Andrew Young of SCLC, refuses to see Albany as a 'failure' despite its huge hopes and limited gains; saying on the "Eyes on the Prize" DVD series, that what they learned there was critical in future successes such as Selma. Carson on the other hand sees Albany as sounding the death-knell for non-violence as a belief, rather than as a tactic. He charts the way in which young angry Black people saw Albany as not frustrating but enraging; spurring them on into increased militancy which found a growing resonance within SNCC.

It is that rising Black militancy which occupies much of the latter half of In Struggle. Carson describes how SNCC moved out of the South and engaged with Northern ghettoes, and a younger generation of predominantly secular leaders largely displaced the likes of Lewis. The changing attitudes within SNCC start extremely early in Carson's estimation. While the early movement wanted equal participation in multi-racial America, by the end of the decade SNCC was a Black-separatist organisation, hostile to white America, demanding a new version of segregation, having expelled all its white staff. Carson examines why the rising generation took this militant direction, and why such extremism was a logical outcome in the context of ongoing Black poverty and powerlessness which the much heralded gains of the movement, like LBJ's Voting Rights Act, simply did not address. When Lewis was removed and Stokely Carmichael became chair of SNCC, the quiet, determined, Christian-orientated leader still pursuing a version of the 'beloved community' was replaced by a fiery orator whose use of the "Black Power!" slogan electrified his audiences. Later leaders such as H. Rap Brown further upped the militancy of SNCC, as anti-American, anti-Capitalism, Pan-Africanism, ghetto riots and opposition to the Vietnam war came to symbolise the second stage of the movement as The Freedom Rides had the first.

The final part of the book describes SNCC's complete collapse by 1970. Repeated ideological battles, internal feuds, personality cults, loss of white-liberal funding and police harassment, led to the organisation fizzling out as an effective civil rights organisation. Carson's response to this is interesting however. He repeatedly castigates SNCC for losing their great history as grass roots community organisers - in favour of demagogic orators seeking to give voice to what they perceived as an emerging worldwide revolutionary Black consciousness. SNCC died, finally because it lost touch with its grassroots, with its communities and had fired, or lost all its best community workers and programmes. What Carson does not do is to subject the ideological trajectory of SNCC to much critical evaluation, apparently seeing it as an inevitable consequence of the context in which African Americans found themselves in, and the multiple-failures of liberalism to deliver jobs, housing, healthcare, and the profound psychological need for Black-Power, by people who had been repressed by White Power all their lives. He doesn't explore why SNCC took to Black Nationalism as a response to these pressures, when not all African Americans did. Furthermore, he does not ever suggest that even the most extreme of these ideological emphases actually damaged SNCC as a viable entity. My personal view is that at its best SNCC embodied the finest and most courageous traditions of the pursuit of democracy and human dignity of the last century. But the tragedy of the end of SNCC is not just an organisational one - but also an ideological one. One of the few forces which can subvert the moral quest to better the lives of the least in society is nationalism, and separatism, which merely accepts what divides us an inevitable thing, to be first tolerated and then celebrated. 

Finally, the concluding part of the book summarizes the work of SNCC, and looks at the ongoing legacy of the organisation and its contribution to African American history of which it is undeniably a major factor. In Struggle is a brilliant history book, carefully and vividly exploring an essential element of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s which is so often overlooked by the mainstream media. Carson writes with great insight and sympathy with his subjects. It is stimulating, highly revealing, brilliantly educational and very readable. In short, this is what historical writing is supposed to be like.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Eddie Cadman: Royal Engineers 1939-1945

I spent some of today searching for some missing keys. Inevitably they were inside the shed which was locked securely! What I initially found instead of keys during my scouring the house, was a large dusty green folder which I haven't set eyes on for decades.

The dark green "Surrey County Council" folder contained my Grandpa's medals from WWII, and a series of photos he brought back from the end of that war.

Some of the photos are unmarked, while several of them contain his comments in very faded ink, on the reverse side. The captions read things like, "Some of my mates", or ""Keil from the power station" describing a view of a war-torn occupied German city. Where comments appear, I have put these under the image, and where the ink is very faded I have also typed out what he wrote.

This appears to be an earlier photo, possibly taken on enlistment into the Army.

While the other campaign medals and stars are definitely his, and are well-known campaign medals, I am not sure about this last one. If anyone knows what this badge/brooch is, I'd be grateful if you could let me know.

My Grandma served in the Women's Auxilliary Air Force, before my Mum was born in 1943.

For the Royal Engineers, duties changed at the end of the war, once the Third Reich had fallen. The tasks of driving an army forwards over new bridges, and along new roads was replaced with many hours of guard duty. These young SS trainees were held by my Grandpa's unit in 1945. He later remarked that guarding Italian POW's in Scotland was much more fun, because while the young Germans were ideologically motivated and determined to cause problems; the Italian POWs were happy to sit in Scotland playing cards, cursing Mussolini and waiting for the war to end. 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Monday, March 09, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Friday, March 06, 2015

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Perth from above, 1932

Click thumbnail to see the full-size image at "Britain from Above" Perth, general view, showing the Bridges and North Inch Golf Course.  An oblique aerial photograph taken facing north. - Britain from Above

Peeled, faded, shabby.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Defined" - Jonny's Story

"Defined" - Jonny's Story from Aaron Koch on Vimeo.

This guy is a friend of a friend, his amazing story of the triumph over adversity - which takes him all the way to the paralympics - is well worth watch.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Notes: Battles Christians Face by Vaughan Roberts

This is a great little book about the battles of the Christian life, it is helpful, pastorally gentle, wise and encouraging. The simple style of language and argument does not mean that the author hasn't wrestled with the issues involved, the extensive footnotes and poignant quotations are one of several giveaways that these short chapters are but the summary-conclusions of a great weight of thought and scholarly engagement, as well as personal experience. Indeed, although I have an early edition of the book, I have read that in the fifth anniversary edition Roberts explains that the selections of issues he addresses in this publication are not random or arbitrary - but are his biblical response to his own personal struggles in the Christian life over several decades.

The opening chapter looks at 'image', which Roberts notes is a problem in western society today in an historically and culturally unique way. The very idea of  projecting or choosing an image would be so alien to most humans that this issue is one of our own making, The author spends much of this chapter exploring how and why we struggle with this issue before turning to the Bible's alternative - which is to see ourselves as God does in Christ. That is to say, adopted, forgiven, renewed and His.

The book then turns to the issue of lust, examining how this fault is a distortion of the God-given sexual drive which was meant for good but when misused can cause much harm. Roberts draws lessons from the fall of King David in the Bible, and looks at ways in which Christians should handle their desires in Godly ways. Next he examines the thorny issue of guilt, arguing that genuine Christian faith is tied to the experience of being forgiven by God, and cleansed from sin. Roberts shows how Christians weighed down by guilt should not try to excuse or justify their sins, but have them dealt with by our gracious God.

The chapter on doubt is a real highlight of the book. Roberts neatly distinguishes between doubt (questioning the truth of an aspect of the faith), and "unbelief" which in the Bible is the wilful, sinful decision to turn from God. He notes that while several of the Biblical authors are scornful of unbelief, Jesus dealt very compassionately with genuine doubters who came to him, like Thomas. There is great pastoral advice in here for honest, genuine, handling of doubt - which every Christian with an enquiring mind experiences. His chapter on depression is fascinating too, opening up and responding to an all pervasive issue. He looks at the basis of Christian hope in a depressing world, tells stories of Christians who have wrestled with depression - and importantly de-stigmatises the condition with frank acceptance of its existence, and all too frequent occurrence.

Pride is seen in this book as the foundational sin of all the others - and the chapter on Christlike humility is helpful. Roberts' chapter on homosexuality will no doubt be the most controversial part of this book. He is one of those who believes that God loves gay people but prohibits all homo-erotic practice, drawing his thinking from the Bible. The chapter doesn't just talk about the Biblical prohibitions however, but talks about pastoral care for people who experience same-sex attraction within the Christian community. He wades into the furore about the ex-gay movement and seeks to frame all his comments within a gospel-centred world view in which this life is not the be-all-and-end all. Roberts has clearly laboured over these issues at great length, and it was when he subsequently noted that all the struggles in this book were his own that the reasons for this became clear. He discusses his own situation at greater length in this interview: CLICK HERE.

The book finishes with a call to ongoing spiritual health, in which Roberts talks openly about times he has struggled to maintain his own prayer-life, bible-reading, and closeness to God. He talks about strategies which have worked for him in the quest to maintain the kind of spiritual life we all crave.

The strengths of this book are the honesty with which it is written, the simple easy-to-read language, and the way in which the author consistently points Christians to ground themselves in the grace of God in Christ. The brevity of the book does leave a few questions unanswered (it's a popular book, not a scholarly tome), and the list of "battles" could be seen as a bit arbitrary; nevertheless if a particular sin of yours such as 'sloth', or 'gossip' isn't given  chapter here, there are plenty of principles which can be applied.

This is a down-to-earth, practical guide to living out the Christian faith in the face of many of the pressures which the modern world hurls against it. I was freshly challenged by it, but actually wish that books with this kind of disarming humility had been around when I was a young adult.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Notes: The Hell Of It All by Charlie Brooker

What is a clean-mouthed, Christian blogger doing reading (let alone reviewing!) a book by well known foul-mouthed atheist, Charlie Brooker? Its a fair question which deserves an answer - and the answer is that I picked it up in some railway station or airport, not quite knowing what I was getting and once I dipped into it, simply couldn't put it down. The Hell Of It All, is Brooker's collected Guardian columns, 2007-8 and brings together all of his splendidly derisory rants against the modern world from those years.

The reasons I found this book compelling are twofold. Firstly, Brooker writes with such a snarling pizzaz that it is hilariously funny. He doesn't offer well-balanced, nuanced reflections on aspects of modern culture, politics, TV, games, relationships and people; he rages against the idiocy he sees all around him. Brooker is an unapologetic misanthrope who doesn't offer a mild critique, but uses the power of language (and scorn) to  demolish his targets, While his language is funny, it is also exceptionally crude. He doesn't just cross the line in terms of taste and decency, but positively attacks it - this is not a book for the easily offended. Every language system (apparently) has its' taboo words designed specifically to shock, outrage, provoke and liken ordinary activities and people to unflattering body parts and functions. Brooker knows a lot of these, and bombards the reader with them repeatedly. The problem with the collection of individual columns into book form is that while they were intended to 'stand alone' and be read at a healthy rate of one per week; this format encourages the reader to consume them chapter at a time. While the once-a-week ride on Brooker's expletive powered cynicism wagon might raise a smile, an eyebrow or irritation; immersion in his tide of dark profanity is less satisfying. This is because while the language might at first raise the emotional pulse and thump his points home with the required arrogant air of sneering contempt; overuse lessens the desired effect. I may be unusual in my response to offence, but I find that over-exposure to the whole panoply of proscribed words lessens their offence; with one exception. My Christian sensibilities are such that while the regular biological/sexual swear words eventually fail to shock anymore, use of "God", and all the variations of "Jesus Christ" consistently provoke a deep unease. Still, despite this reservation I love the way that Brooker rants. For example, Valentines Day "The only national celebration dedicated to mental illness" (p121) is, for single people, "a cruel joke, you're like a one-legged man on National Riverdance Day" (p122) Or try this for size, from p310 about TV Show "Knight Rider":
".... a show about a coiffured berk in a talking car, and it was awful. David Hasselhoff was the berk, the talking car was a Trans Am called "KITT". It's fondly remembered today thanks to its' cool theme tune and amusingly portentous title sequence, in which a bowel-straining voice-over told us we were about to witness 'a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist' (presumably because being honest and saying, 'here's a load of made-up **** about a *** in a car which might help you pass another hour before death,' didn't play so well with the focus-groups)."
What's not to like about this - even if I had to 'bleep' a couple of moderately offensive words? 

Secondly, I found that time and time again I agreed completely that the targets of Brooker's ire are things which positively deserve debunking, ridicule and opprobrium. Whether it is idiot TV talent shows, celebrity culture, skiing, Valentines Day, Boris Johnson, conspiracy theorists, the BNP, Piers Morgan, Knight Rider, male-stupidity, pseudo-science, advertising - a glorious list of targets well in need of a critique, this book is all the more fun because the critiques are gloriously ruthless, funny, self-indulgent, over-stated and needed.

Here he goes after current men's fashions in a review of some ghastly TV male make-over thing:
"The point of the programme, apparently, is to 'explore' the increasingly demented body-image issues afflicting British men. Men have completely lost their minds in recent years, buying hair straighteners and eye-liner and stupid bloody clothes in their millions in a concerted effort to craft themselves into a cross between a Manga character and a Big Brother contestant. Walk down any high street these days and its like passing through the Valley of the Preening Wusses. While women have an impressive variety of of 'looks', from Girls Aloud to 1940s vamp, fashionable men only seem to have one [which is]  "vain *****". Why would anyone want to dress like these ***-***-***-****? This is life, not an audition for Hollyoaks."  (p308-9)
Well quite.

The other side of all this is Brooker's disarming modesty. He doesn't see himself as apart, or above the culture of which he writes, but happily dismisses himself along with all the other victims of his diatribe; and even apologises when a victim of his pen turns out to not be a "***" after all! While he clearly despises much celeb-culture, and the 'reality-TV' shows which manufacture fake celeb's, and seems to despise people who watch such inane parp; he cheerily writes as one of them. Amusingly for all his ranting about the folly of love, marriage, parenting and the horror of children - since completing these columns he has also taken up all of these life pursuits. He even takes the time to inform the reader that he doesn't hold his own writing in especially high regard either - which is nice.

One thing that surprised me was how charming Brooker can be in his appreciation of things. I certainly didn't buy the book to be charmed; I was wanting to wallow in disdain with a kindred spirit, but yet some of these moments in the book were delightful. Brooker might vent his spleen at a pretentious or boring celeb chef but his enjoyment of Heston Blumenthal doing weird, weird things with food was fun. When Oliver Postgate died there were many well-meaning obituaries which noted the politics, ideology, and creativity of his "SmallFilms" team which made the likes of "The Saga of Noggin the Nog", "Bagpuss", and "Ivor the Engine". Only Brooker's though did a good enough job because of all those I read, it was his that nailed the fact that it was the reassuring sound of his voice that above all, meant so much to children in the 1970s.

Throughout this book, Brooker takes aim at (and excoriates with flourish), many of the things that I find myself grumbling about. I think that from the opening salvo, "The hell of nightclubs" it was clear that I would appreciate this book. Reading chunks of it out to my wife (or getting her to read bits of it if the kids were about), she repeatedly rolled her eyes and said that it reminded her of me. As I read Brooker, it became apparent that we are consistently irked by many of the same things, and share a panoply of the same foibles, follies and fears (uncannily similar at times). Where we differ, I suppose, is that while we agree that so much of what surrounds in this world us is utter ****, I retain a basic Christian worldview which maintains that ultimately there is a good God, who will redeem it. His view is that this world is appalling, so appalling in fact that it deserves mockery, because that's all there is; whereas I think that the world is appalling but that is because it is fallen, and divorced from its purpose and creator; and that's all that matters. So while I read, snarled, scoffed, laughed and applauded along with Charlie Brooker it became clear that while we might want to hit the same targets, we are firing from quite different positions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015