Monthly Archives: August 2014

One less Fool, and why we’re all impoverished as a result

News of the death of Robin Williams prompted a number of reactions : the tragedy of a life cut prematurely short; thanksgiving for somebody who brought so much joy to so many people during a remarkable career as a stand-up comedian and actor; reflection that we still understand so little about depression and the invisible despair that it generates in so many people. For me, there is also a sense of profound sadness that one of the world’s true, modern jesters has been silenced

Whilst the historical portrayal of the jester as somebody who had license to criticise with impunity Kings and Queens, Lords and Nobles, may not survive close scrutiny, there is no doubt that there are examples throughout literature of the Court Jester or Fool taking on this role. One of the most widely read examples is that of the Fool in King Lear. The theory is that the lowly status of the Jester, coupled with his use of music and comedy, allowed him to speak truth to power in a way that other advisers and confidants would not have dared to attempt

Robin Williams was one of a number of (mostly American) comics who performed this Jester role throughout the 1970s and 1980s, pointing out the absurdities of some of the inequalities and prejudices that plagued western society then (and still do today). Take the example of Williams’ biting criticism of the systemic, racial prejudice amongst the golfing establishment at the time when Tiger Woods was breaking onto the world scene at the end of this stand-up sequence . Williams sets the scene with a ridiculously funny re-enactment of a drunk Scot inventing the idea for golf, before leading the audience by the nose through the absurdities of modern golfing clothing and etiquette, before delivering the coup de grace with his description of the horrified reaction of golf’s establishment to the emergence of Woods

It’s a style that built on the foundations laid by people like Richard Pryor and Jacky Mason – comedians who were able to highlight discrimination and injustice through their comedy, providing a voice for those at the margins who had traditionally been little heard, and causing those in the wider audience to stop and think even while they laughed

Given the malaise that appears to be afflicting democracies in Europe and North America, with public confidence in politicians at an all-time low and more and more people turning their backs on the democratic process, we need Fools more than ever to help point out the absurd and to prick the pomposity of a political class that seems so remote from the electorate it is meant to serve. The loss of Williams – the greatest Fool of his generation – leaves us all the poorer

Tea, cake and chat at the Death Cafe

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. So wrote Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. Of course, now, even taxes are not as certain as they were in the 18th Century – especially if you can route your income through offshore tax havens and ‘dodgy’ Trusts! Death, however, remains unchangeably constant. “There are only two things that unite all human beings, whatever their colour, creed, economic status – we are all born and we will all die”, says Mollie Lord. “But whilst we are all happy to talk about pregnancy and birth, death is a major social taboo subject. People tend to be afraid of talking about death and dying.”

Mollie is the convenor of the Hay-on-Wye Death Café, a monthly meeting where people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Death Cafés were introduced to the UK by Jon Underwood in 2010. Underwood had been inspired by the earlier work of Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist who founded Cafés Mortal in Switzerland and France from 2004. Since 2011, there have been over 970 Death Café meetings in countries stretching from Switzerland to Canada; and from the United States to Australia.

Mollie’s introduction to the Death Café movement came entirely by chance, as she happened upon a feature article in the New York Times supplement that accompanies the Observer Sunday newspaper in the UK. Mollie originally settled in Hay with her husband when he was forced to retire from his job as Academic Librarian at the University of London due to ill-health. It wasn’t just the lure of the books that drew them to Hay – their two daughters were also based nearby in Hereford at the time. Mollie was hit hard by her husband’s death shortly after they had settled in Hay, and – despite her training as a nurse and her experience as a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner in The Maudsley in London, and with The Priory Hospitals Group – she admits that talking about death was not something that had featured prominently in conversations at home or at work. Reading about the Death Café that had just started meeting in New York, Mollie realised that this was a simple, but potentially very effective, way of getting people to think about death and dying – not out of morbid curiosity, but rather as a means of confronting ignorance and fear, and allowing people to make the most of their lives in the meantime.

The first Hay on Wye Death Café took place in September 2013, and has continued to meet at The Institute of Arts & Ideas (the Globe) on the second Tuesday of each month since then. There are typically around 10 to 12 attenders at each meeting – and the group comprises a mix of men and women, older and younger people, Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Humanists, and those with no particular religious or philosophical outlook. It is this eclectic mix of people, experiences and backgrounds that makes the discussions at the Café so rich and – though it seems counter-intuitive – “so much fun!” Topics of discussion since last September have included reflections on the impact of mass deaths during the First World War; the options available to those who wish for a Humanist funeral; and the ethical and moral dilemmas presented by organisations who support assisted dying, such as Dignitas in Switzerland. Summarising the feedback from members at the July meeting, Mollie explains that “those who come along feel better from having taking part, and find that talking about death and dying in an open and constructive way, actually enriches their lives.”

Further evidence of the effectiveness of the Death Café approach, is found in the fact that – having first attended a Café meeting in Hay to see what it was all about – representatives from the hospice movement in Hereford have now set up a Death Café there too!

This feature was commissioned for – the website for news and information on all things related to Hay-on-Wye, Powys

Relatively speaking, this is simply, absolutely wrong

I’ve thought long and hard before writing this post. I’ve read a whole host of other very learned and much better informed commentary before doing so. It is a great irony of appalling events that they tend to produce some of the most compelling writing and broadcasting. Examples have included Jon Snow’s report for Channel 4 News ( and this exchange between Brian Eno and Peter Schwartz that has thrown more light than a lot of what has been written on the issue in the past fortnight (

The ‘appalling event’, of course, is the Israeli military action against Hamas in Gaza, and the impact of that on non-Hamas residents in that densely populated territory.

I should make clear at the outset that what follows is not prompted by antisemitism or support for the Palestinian Arab cause in Gaza and the West Bank. The history of Palestine, Israel (and indeed the wider Middle East) is long, complex and reflects no credit on Jew or Arab, and still less on the likes of the USA, Russia, the UK and France, who have for far too long treated the whole, extended region as a kind of ideological, theological and military testing zone.

However, what is happening now in Gaza is wrong. Plainly, simply and absolutely. The slaughter of children and civilian adults through indiscriminate aerial bombardment can never be justified. This is even more so when the level of killing, and the deliberate, targeted destruction of all those things that are necessary to civil society (hospitals, schools, water and energy distribution systems), is so wholly disproportionate to the level of threat that is posed to one side by the other. Again, to be clear, Hamas’ campaign of rocket attacks and guerilla action across the border into Israel is equally indefensible. But the level of killing and destruction that is now being rained down onto Gaza by Israel is obscene in comparison. I tend to shy away from absolutism on this blog and in my approach to life generally. It’s probably linked to my non-conformist upbringing in South Wales and the principles that were drilled into me during my undergraduate legal training. I try at all times to see both sides of the story, to take account of the fact that sometimes it really does “all depend”. But there are some things that fall into the category of fundamental principles that have to be preserved if the concept of humanity is to mean anything at all. It must be absolutely wrong for any country to seek to justify the deliberate slaughter of civilians, especially when a disproportionate number of those civilians are themselves children and (by definition) no threat to anybody.

It must also be absolutely wrong for those nations with the greatest influence over those who continue the slaughter not to bring that influence to bear to the fullest extent and in a way that makes clear to the whole world that what is happening cannot continue and must have consequences. This is not a time for quiet diplomacy and political language. This is the time for plain speaking. Cameron, Obama and other leaders of countries allied to Israel must now speak out unequivocally against the continuation of military action in Gaza. To do otherwise makes us accessories after the fact and tarnishes us all with the guilt that is the inevitable, human reaction to what is happening in Gaza now.