Friday, 17 June 2016


This is a blog I’ve started many times. Each time from a new angle, each time trying to find something that will convince one doubter to vote remain. But each time I have found myself unable to finish. The feeling of impotence as yet another article is added to the pile of pro-Remain arguments – mirrored by a pile of equal height of pro-Brexit – choked me, overwhelmed me, and I stopped. So now, instead of trying to write an article that makes the case, I simply want to write why I have made the choice I have and am voting to remain. It’s not a diatribe, it’s more of a diary. 

Of course, there are the practical, pragmatic, monetary and selfish considerations. I’ve seen lots of figures bandied about, erroneous on both sides no doubt, but I am simply not convinced by the argument that we can have all of the economic benefits of EU membership without the membership itself or the investment which that membership requires. I’ve watched the value of the pound drop steadily with every surge of support for Brexit and can’t help feeling that tells us something. I also want to protect my rights to a limited working week, sick pay, holidays. I sigh with impatience as immigration and the EU are yet again conflated as if 50% of our immigrants were not from outside the EU (a figure that would rise if we left), as if we could stop European immigration while maintaining our trade agreements. I groan in disbelief as voters with no experience of people who have immigrated feel the need to defend those ‘suffering’ elsewhere.
But, in the end, this referendum is personal, isn’t it? That’s why the interviews, the interactive graphics, the poll trackers all feel so futile. Because in the end each person will vote with their gut. My vote to remain has a lot to do with the person I am. 

I grew up in Northern Ireland, but lived through very little of ‘the Troubles’, in large part because of the huge efforts of those on both sides seeking peace. I remember the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and experienced the stability of the years that followed. So my heart sinks when I think of leaving the EU. Of the border controls which would need to be imposed to stop freedom of movement through the UK’s only land border with an EU country. Of the smouldering tensions this would fan effortlessly into flame. “The vision of border controls plays into the hands of those who have yet to realise the armed struggle is over… Any step backwards is a really bad idea,” wrote Sir Hugh Orde (former chief constable of the Police Service Northern Ireland) earlier this month. 

I am also the wife of a Spaniard. We met one summer six years ago when I got on a train, and he on a plane, and travelled from our respective countries (no visas) to Bordeaux. We lived there for a month, with a Belgian and a German, each giving tours of the cathedral in our respective languages to hundreds of tourists a week. Because I’m lazy (and a bit of a home bird), if I’d had to get a visa to go to Bordeaux, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. And the idea that I would then not be with my husband gives me vertigo to say the least. But what really gets me isn’t the inconvenience of a visa. It’s the fact that that Belgian boy and that German girl became our friends. That Spaniard became my husband and partner in life. So much of this referendum is predicated on fear – fear of what will happen if we leave or if we stay, fear of the faceless masses looming beyond our borders, fear of the people within our borders. I vote to remain because those people are my friends, our friends. Because I know I do not need to fear them. 

And I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Christ who was a refugee. Christ who not only loved the outcast but welcomed them to eat with him and restored them to society. Christ who said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – not ‘leave your neighbour to sort out their own problems’. Christ who is Love. 

I recently read someone who wrote that ‘If the Leave campaign was about how Britain could contribute more to the world if it left the EU then I’d be interested. But it’s not. It’s about how Britain can give less and take more from the world – and how it can keep the rest of the world out.’ And, to me, that’s it. If my vote is not about how we can care more for the vulnerable, about how we can contribute to the good of our communities and our planet, then to me it is worthless.  The campaign to leave has revolved around what we get, what we lose, on who we hate and who is hurting us. That is what wins if we leave. I cannot reconcile it with my calling in Christ. And I, in conscience, cannot vote for it.

Monday, 20 May 2013

To be and not to be

(Disclaimer: this post contains strong language such as 'verb', and 'subjunctive'. But, as Miranda's mother would say, bear with...)

Having lived in Spain for almost 9 months now, I hope my Spanish language skills have improved slightly. To be honest, my way of measuring progress is more negative than positive. It's not so much that I notice the fluent utterances issuing from my mouth. Rather, the occasions on which a Spaniard is talking to me and I have no idea what's going on - and  therefore make ambiguous noises which can be interpreted as both 'si' and 'no' - are fewer and further between.

Yet, there are still two banes of my Spanish-speaking life. The first is called the subjunctive. (Convincing explanations of why this linguistic feature is really necessary, or suggestions for how we can plot to phase it out of the Spanish language, very welcome.) The second is the existence of two verbs which mean 'to be'. 

I had spent 20 years managing very nicely with just the one verb: 'I am tired', 'I am a girl', 'I am not enjoying PE', 'I am so uncomfortable when my feet get wet that I am unable to think of anything else until they are dry' (does the wet feet thing happen to anyone else?). It was therefore an unwelcome shock to the system to discover that I now had to decide whether to use 'estar' or 'ser' every time I wanted to say 'I am...' (or indeed, 'it's...', 'we're...', the confusion goes on). Many a time I just choose one at random, holding on to the comforting thoughts that: a) there's a 50% chance that I've opted for the correct one and b) if I say it quickly enough and make enough hand gestures, it's possible no one will notice. 

However, despite my bewilderment, I have to admit that having two words for 'to be' actually has some sort of logic, and quite a profound one at that. Put very simply, the verb 'estar' refers to things which are temporary or superficial: 'it's sunny', 'I'm bored', 'I'm cooking'. Whereas 'ser' is about essential, permanent, deeper facts of being: 'You are a man', 'She is the Queen', 'They are very generous'. These things are not about someone's current situation but about qualities or facts which are integral to who they are. God's name in the old testament is YAHWEH - which means, 'I am who I am'. In Spanish, it has a further power because this is translated using the verb 'ser': 'Yo Soy el que soy'. He's not here while good things happen and gone when things get a bit messy. He's not around when I'm being good and away when I muck things up. He is unchanging, everlasting.  Most importantly, he is. Constantly. Eternally.

In English, we can equally say 'I am thin' or 'I am overweight' and 'I am your friend' or 'I am an architect'. These all describe who or what we areThe diet industry - magazines, creams, foods, workout DVDs, cookbooks - finds this ambiguity particularly profitable. Its basic advertising premise is: if you are thin, you are successful. One's physical appearance - particularly one's weight - is part of who you are and it communicates who you are. It therefore struck me as interesting, and rather refreshing, to discover that the intermingling of these concepts is much less possible in the Spanish language. You might 'be' (estar) thin, fat, plump or skeletal; but to 'be' (ser) a friend or an architect is something very different. It's not just that 'it's more important to be a good friend than to be skinny'. It's that those are two completely different kinds of 'being', which have little bearing on one another. 

Likewise, in English, as I've suggested, 'I am' covers a whole lot of emotional ground: 'I'm really happy', 'I'm fed up', 'I'm brave', 'I'm feeling low', 'I'm open-minded'. We are all of these things. In Spanish, these aren't all thrown together in the same category. It is one thing to 'be' (estar) fed up, really happy, low. That is how you are feeling now. It is quite a different concept to 'be' (ser) open-minded or brave. That is about the type of person you are. 'Estar' pesimista (to be feeling pessimistic today) is a very different thing from 'ser' pesimista (to be a pessimistic person). 

Too often, I look at how I am feeling today, or how I am feeling about a particular situation and, from this, I draw conclusions about the sort of person I am. I find potential problems with plans for this weekend and I decide I am a negative person. I feel uncomfortable in a particular crowd and I conclude that I am socially inept. I find myself bored with something which is of unparalleled excitement to those around me and, suddenly, I am a boring person. I jump from how I am now (estar) to who I am (ser) - and I confuse the two.  It's only gradually that I'm realising that I can be (estar) low today and still be (ser) an optimist. I can   be (estar) in the mood to do nothing but curl up in bed with a good book tonight and still be (ser) sociable. I can be (estar) in a complete mess and still be (ser) God's child, who he loves. 

Of course, I'm not saying Spanish-speakers don't fall into the same traps of distorted thinking that English-speakers do. The existence of two verbs is hardly an impermeable armour of defence against cultural messages or emotional experiences. But reflecting on two different ways of being has at least made me think. It has helped me to look at my current feelings and situations from a different perspective, and to separate them from other, deeper truths. It gives me another resource with which to challenge ideas before I absorb them, before I draw radical conclusions. To be (estar) or to be (ser)? That is the question. 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

What we don't see can't hurt us (and that's the problem)

On Monday the 15th of April, coordinated bombings in Boston left 3 people dead and over 140 injured. We don't know who was responsible, but we can be certain that the physical, emotional and infrastructural effects are incalculably deep. The national news of most countries is dominated by the tragedy, and we ask ourselves how something like this could happen.

On Monday the 15th of April, coordinated bombings in Iraqi cities left at least 31 people dead and over 200 injured. We don't know who was responsible, but we can be certain that the physical, emotional and infrastructural effects are incalculably deep. Most people have no idea that this tragedy has occurred. 

Like many people, my question when I see these things is: why? Why would anyone want to destroy the lives of innumerable unknown others? But also: why are our reactions to these two tragedies so strikingly different from one another? And the reactions are strikingly different. Yesterday, having lunch on my own, I switched on the TV. The Boston marathon attack was the headline story on every news programme, without exception. The BBC News website ( had not only earmarked the bombings as its top story, but provided links to Obama's latest statements on the attacks, an annotated map of where the attacks occurred, an article about 'life after limb loss' and a picture gallery, not to mention the in-depth 'Special Report'. Facebook condolences to the victims in Boston flooded my newsfeed, proclaiming 'Pray for Boston'. There are no traces of the Iraq bombings in Spanish television news. They don't even make it into the top 3 'Middle East' stories on BBC News. I can't remember the last time news from Iraq found its way into a Facebook status.

And it's not about geographical distance. Spain and the UK are both roughly 5600 kilometres from Iraq and 5900 kilometres from Boston. So what is it about? One thing must be the element of shock. The news from Boston was a brutal, unpredicted and unpredictable disaster. The uncomfortable truth is that Iraqi bombings have become achingly familiar, to the point that they elicit neither the reaction they might have once nor the reaction they merit. The fact I am forced to face is that the Boston bombings captured my attention and those  in Iraq did not. But is the news really just there to entertain me? If a situation goes on too long, should we stop reporting it in case people get a bit bored? I wonder, if every bombing in the Middle East were top news, would national frustration not build, would we not say sooner that 'enough's enough'?

But I can't help wondering if there are deeper, more unpalatable reasons for our comparative indifference which go beyond the mere lack of the 'element of surprise'. In the last fifteen-ish years, the internet has rapidly made us negotiators of a much more globalised and connected world. Somehow we have to find ways of responding to in-depth, immediate knowledge about myriad people and events from countless countries around the world. And yet, while the technological shift has been radical, the response to it in the west has been startlingly conservative. Instead of allowing it to make the previously invisible and unreachable more real, we have dealt with the new welter of information by sorting it into the same old categories of 'newsworthy' and 'un-newsworthy' - of 'us' and 'them' - which have existed throughout history, which have bred distrust, which have ultimately justified wars. 

I get the feeling that there's some odd sense in which we believe that Americans are really more like Spaniards or Brits (or, I dare say, the French, Australians or Canadians) than are Iraqis. And I'm sure the people who feel that way are equally aware of the idea that 'all people are people', that no one is better or worse than anyone else. Citizenship classes which assert the equality of all people, the importance of respect and the universality of human rights can instil a set of principles by which school behaviour and public actions can be measured. But if the traditional categories of 'the West' and 'the rest' remain entrenched in our media - if all the information we receive is filtered through these values - how can we truly internalise a sense of shared humanity?

Pray for Boston. Yes, it's so important. But I also must pray for Iraq. For the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For North Korea. The One I'm praying to doesn't go on Facebook, doesn't surf news websites, doesn't channel hop - He sees things, and people, as they really are. And I want to try a bit harder to do the same.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Recommended Daily Anxieties (RDAs)

Modal verbs. Who knew that such things existed? Certainly not me. Until September 2012 that is. Some may know that I am currently working as an English language assistant in a Spanish secondary school. I thought I would be the one teaching the vocabulary. But over the past months I have become acquainted with a whole range of concepts which apparently apply to my mother tongue but which have the dual effects of confusing me utterly and destroying any scrap of credibility as a language teacher which I might once have appeared to have. I arrive to my class, reassuringly and authoritatively urging them that, 'If you have any questions whatsoever, ask me. That's why I'm here. I love questions.' I give the smile of a native English speaker whose job is merely to talk in her own language. 'Can you use modal verbs in the second conditional and the present perfect or only in the present, past continuous and future?', is the reply. Honestly, if they had tried to explain the offside rule to me in Belarusian, I would have looked less clueless. 

It turns out that modal verbs are a set of verbs used to communicate possibility (can, may, might, could), prohibition (must not), recommendations (should, ought to) and obligations (must, have to). I thought I knew all there was to know about these particular words - especially 'should', 'ought to', 'must', and 'have to'. Because these words have a unique knack of soliciting in me feelings of weighty duty, guilt, confusion and indecision. 

Advice is everywhere, not least when it comes to food. Read a newspaper, the health section of the BBC News website, lifestyle magazines or even have a conversation with (particularly, it has to be said) women, and it is very difficult to avoid such phrases as 'we should be halving our salt intake', 'bread is so bad for you', 'I'm being naughty and having carbs', 'apparently, we ought to avoid red meat altogether', 'I really must stop having so much lactose'. Now, let's be clear. There is no doubt that  health and nutrition are interlinked. And I am grateful to those scientists and specialists who have dedicated themselves to investigating how nutrition affects the many facets of our wellbeing. But at times I can feel overwhelmed by the plethora of advice. My head becomes full of half-remembered 'shoulds' and 'ought tos', of proud assertions of columnists who are 'avoiding dairy', of the 'Recommended Daily Allowances' of calcium, fat, sugar, potassium, Vitamin B12, omega 3 and beta-carotene. 

My first response to these many recommendations is a feeling of compulsion to abide by every rule, to 'do nutrition' perfectly. I'm almost tempted to put '3 portions of dairy' and '4g of potassium' on  my daily to-do list between 'Reply to last week's emails' and 'Do job application', lest in the maelstrom of life I should forget my nutritional duties. It might seem natural that we talk about what we 'should' be eating and how much of this nutrient we 'ought to' have. But these modal verbs have a rather cunning trap which I too often fall into. The logical extension of the idea that 'we should' be doing something is that, if we do not do it, we are doing what we 'shouldn't' do. If we don't do what we 'ought to' do, we are doing what we really 'ought not' to do. We fail. And it occurs to me in my saner moments that this is not only a rather disagreeable feeling, but it is absurd.

Presumably all these ideas of the right and wrong ways to nourish our bodies are ultimately aimed at increasing the quality and longevity of our lives. But this is where a lot of the advice begins to fall down. There has been increasing fuss made by some food writers in the UK over that illicit stuff, bread (which PEOPLE HAVE BEEN EATING FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS...just saying). And I've read and been told on several occasions that we should now be avoiding ham. However, here in Madrid, I am living in a country which has bread with every meal and which prescribes ham as a food to eat if you are ill. Ham is to the Spanish diet what Kate Middleton is to Now Magazine. The average Spaniard consumes 5 kg of ham every year. 

In terms of life expectancy, the UK ranks at number 23, while Spain comes in at number 12. 

The staple food of the country with the greatest life expectancy in the world - Japan - is white rice. White rice, which a well-intentioned US website denounced as a food 'we thought was good for us but is actually bad for us'.  Centenarians who have won their fifteen minutes of fame for their longevity have attributed the latter variously to Guinness, Coca Cola and a daily cup of tea-and-whisky. 

This is not to dismiss any scientific findings by any means. But what this does suggest, to me at least, is that, however many rules we try to make for ourselves, the human body is infinitely more complex than we can know. I may avoid ham and eat brown rice because the research says I should, but it doesn't mean I will live any longer. And it seems to me that what lurks behind the rules, the guidance, the modals, is a desire to make life seem much more within our control than it really is. I might like to think that I can control the direction, the quality, the length, the content of my life. But there is a limit. Scary as many might find it, there is a lot we don't know. It is even possible that there is a lot which we cannot know. And I can't help wondering if that is why we turn to these reassuring 'shoulds' which hold out an exaggerated possibility of power. In the face of the facts, however, it seems I'm not quite so omnipotent. It seems that following the many 'shoulds' of the media don't provide genuine reassurance. It seems that living a life of true purpose and listening to the demands of my body and common sense is going to improve my health more than following the many modals. And I for one find that quite a relief.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

You may have taken a wrong turning...

Unfortunately you may have missed your turn-off, or perhaps you've come off the motorway too soon, because somehow you've ended up on my road. But welcome! You might as well pootle along in this direction for a little while since you're here now. 

Fingerposts on the Road is a blog about my attempts to navigate through life. One might have hoped that a blog entitled 'Fingerposts on the Road' would be an instructive, handy set of pointers for how to live life with direction, purpose and success. Alas, no. For all I know, there may well be another equally charmingly-entitled blog which in fact does provide such a service. Unfortunately, the fingerposts to which I am referring are mistakes. In bestowing the aforementioned title on this blog, I have lovingly plagiarised honoured C.S. Lewis, who wrote that 'failures are fingerposts on the road to achievement'. 

So why am I writing a blog about failures? For the precise reason that it seems odd to blog about making a complete hash of things. We, rightly, celebrate the good things in life: our achievements, successes, joys. When someone asks me, 'how are you?', I don't usually reply: 'Well, actually, not so good because I have just put my foot in it with my boss, every time I look at my hair in the mirror I see split ends and a bus inconsiderately sprayed me with rainwater at 8:46 this morning.' 'Fine' is much easier (and has the added advantage of not requiring half as much vocal enthusiasm). Facebook provides us with a never-ending stream of smiling faces, cupcakes, holidays, birthdays, parties and casual references to truly impressive lives. Even the bad moments in my day are usually censored according to the Facebook Test - if they fulfil the criteria of being humorous and not too embarrassing, they are worthy of publication. If they make me uncomfortably vulnerable, they must stay within the realm of private experience. 

Now, there's nothing wrong with that. Not at all. The problem is not that intensely personal dark moments are kept private, but that so much else is now public. And this can distort my perception. Because human experience now seems so easily visible, I forget that what I can see is not actually the full picture, but rather the part which we feel happy to share.  

So, back to the question: why am I writing a blog about failures? Quite simply, because nothing has helped me so much as gradually coming to a vague awareness that I'm not the only one who often gets scared, grumpy, embarrassed, sad, frustrated, and baffled; and my hope is that, perhaps, by writing about these frequent moments in my life, they might encourage someone else too.  

Also, I'm not very good at converting failures into fingerposts. They tend to stay stuck at the 'failure' (/example of idiocy/major embarrassment/source of STRESS) stage in my mind. Now, I often find that - whether I like it or not - the things I get wrong do lead me to a better place than I would otherwise have found myself in. In fact, I have a suspicion that the One I trust the most is the one who does this failure-to-fingerpost transformation. So I'm also hoping that maybe if I write about my attempts to muddle through I'll begin to see life from His perspective a little bit sooner.