Second hand Graves

Elen Sentier’s guest blog got me thinking about my own relationship with Robert Graves, and the wider implications for Pagans. Like Elen, I first came to Graves through my family. I recall my father reading The White Goddess when I was a child. Ideas of maid, mother and crone entered my mind, uncritically. The sacrifice king, the oak and holly kings, all got into my mind. Only later did I find out where I’d picked all of that up. I didn’t acquire the Celtic Tree calendar or the issues of Ogham as a sacred, ancient and Druidic language as a child, but for second and third generation modern Pagans, that’s easily done.

When I finally read The White Goddess, and enough of the Golden Bough to develop an impression (I hated it, was mostly my impression…) it struck me that Graves was writing poetic truth. Taken on those terms, his work is amazing, awen-laden stuff and well worth your time. It suggests incredible magic just beyond your reach, and the desire to grasp that may keep you fruitfully questing for the rest of your life.

However, the trouble with Graves, is that a lot of people seem to have taken it as history. Ideas from The White Goddess have leached into Pagan writing to a remarkable degree. I’ve seen dashes of Graves all over the place. His interpretations of Ogham shape the consensus understanding now dominating modern Paganism. His tree calendar has gone distinctly feral while the sacrificial kings he acquired from Frazer are now so well established that we’ve all accepted the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ as a religious expression. Having grown up with folk as well, Mr Barleycorn always struck me as being a personification and celebration of the beer – not ancient Paganism, but part of that innate human inclination to celebrate.

Most of us will first encounter the ideas of Robert Graves second hand and out of context. The odds are it will be the tree calendar. If you’re a Druid, you might get crane bags, the battle of the trees or the ogham interpretations. Drip fed the ideas of Graves, they become part of your world view, and if you get round to The White Goddess having internalised a few of these, it’s all too easy to read uncritically, miss the poetic, and invest in the idea of Graves as History.

We have made modern myths. Myths are in essence stuff people came up with, and the measure of a myth is not its age, but what it gives to us. In that regard, a modern myth can be just as helpful as an old one. How helpful is Graves? The idea of working closely with trees, and the possible pattern is definitely useful, but the dogmatic approach that ties trees to months regardless of what grows where you live, seems counterproductive to me. I have great personal dislike for his triple goddess archetype – maid mother and crone divides femininity into pre-kids, breeding and no longer breeding, trapping women into a restrictive identity story. I do not like his attitude to women, muses or goddesses. Woman as passive, inspiration giving muse/goddess, man as inspired creator and poet underpins his thinking. Stuff that! And then there’s the sacrifice kings, another narrative of heterosexual power exchange, male sovereignty, passive goddess overseeing…  it does not speak to me. I do not want a role in this story.

If you find Graves inspiring, as myth or as poetry then go for it, enjoy. My concern is that we’ve used his work to restrict ideas of goddess, femininity, gender roles and ideas about what it means to live this life as a Pagan.

The Five Valleys walk

Yesterday, we three undertook the Stroud Five Valley’s walk – 21 miles, with a lot of going up and down steep hills. It’s a demanding annual event raising money for Meningitis research and the rebuilding of lives shattered by the illness. I’ve done it before – once, about twenty years ago. Tom hadn’t done it, and with my lad being 12, it represented a huge physical challenge for him.

There were a lot of people walking that route. It’s a very different experience to be out with such numbers of walkers, all sharing the same intent and journey. There were many conversations with strangers, and a sense of camaraderie pervaded the whole event.

We walked through some gorgeous Cotswold countryside, with the beech trees just starting to turn. The route took us through Lyn Chadwick’s sculpture park  – not usually available for public viewing, and a remarkable experience. We also had an incredibly close encounter with a deer, which ran past us, just a few feet away. I found a small lizard sunbathing on a rock, which was also lovely. With that many people on the move I’d not expected to see much wildlife, so these were happy surprises. There were lots of fungi too, and many glorious views along the way.

Today I am sore and weary. The last four miles were really hard going for all of us, and it took a long time. I have epic blisters, but am on the whole in better shape than I expected to be. James has already raised nearly £300 in sponsorship, which is brilliant ( should you feel so moved). We spent a lot of last night considering what lessons could be learned and how to do better next year. (Buy chips on route, put halts in different places to improve speed on the flat, and better prepare us for the section we found toughest.) It hurt, and it was hard, and there were several times when I had no idea how I was going to get to the end… but we did, and I have no doubt that we’ll try it again next year.

A life without challenges, without epic adventures, trials and victories, would not be much of a life. On the whole, the cost in pain is well worth paying for that fuller, richer, more alive, more intense experience of being alive. A challenge faced, a challenge overcome. I don’t have a great relationship with my body, and I spent some of the walk deeply envious of the beautiful graceful gazelle people who were running a route it took my every effort to walk, but at least I can walk, and I’m grateful for that. My body held up better than I expected, which is reassuring. If the epic blisters, which I had no awareness of whilst moving, are anything to go by, my pain thresholds are nothing to be ashamed of either, and that brings me a perspective on other things. All in all, it was well worth the effort.

Robert Graves – an anarchist’s perspective

a guest blog from Elen Sentier

As someone who is married to a scientist who used to work at the Rutherford-Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire, and is the daughter of an engineer I find the “arts-type” view of “facts” amusing and somewhat disquieting.

What is a fact?

How many real facts can you list – I’m not absolutely certain I can think of one!

Scientists work with hypotheses, that’s Greek for damn good guess that has been shown to fail yet. Well actually perhaps, that it only fails in certain cases which we know very little about yet such as relativity/quantum. And anyway, we have observed that light is both particles and waves – which seems to most ordinary mortals to be a pair of diametrically opposite things and therefore impossible. Yes … well … umm … growing up in a household where this kind of thing was normal breakfast conversation makes a difference to how you look at the academic Arts mind. And then marrying someone who was involved in experiments where the boss PhDs concluded that the only way to explain the experiment was a particle going backwards in time … I dare say you’re getting the idea *grin*.

Science and engineering work on the principles of observation – not on the priciples of footnotes and what people have said in the past.

I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Professor Eric Laithwaite (who invented the linear motor and explored the spin-energy of planets as an energy source we humans might use). He began one lecture at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London as follows …

‘I likes taking to school children. I don’t like the teachers, I like the children. Very often I begins by dropping me keys from one hand to another [he demonstrated]. Sooner or later some little tyke at the back says, “Hey, mister, what you’m droppin’ them keys for?” to which I reply, “I’m always hoping they’ll go ooop!”…’

And all this in his glorious Lancashire accent *smile*.

Laithwaite finished the lecture by putting up a cartoon; it showed a learner driver, a young woman, sat in a car beside a young man who was the instructor. It was a wee bit odd because the car was bowling along above the road at tree height! Laithwaite has the instructor saying to the young woman, “Now then Mrs Postlethwaite, don’t you worry none, but when we gets back to the ground just try and remember exactly what it was you did!”

It’s well worth looking here – – see more of what he did, he was a wizard, a real magic man … and he was a scientist.

What has all this to do with Robert Graves? For me, and for my dad who introduced me to Graves, and my husband who walks between the worlds of Boolean algebra and Graves as breakfast conversation, the point is about the tyranny of so-called “facts”. It is so, so easy to climb into the box of accepted wisdom and so many scholars do precisely that. Footnotes and end-notes and scholarly tomes were written by people, including Graves. People have their own axes to grind and their own additions, adaptations, and enhancements to make; many of them write from a political background – most of the Roman writers for instance. And, all history is written by the winners!

I used to be a senior project manager building computer systems for the MOD, back in the day some 25 years ago! It was fun, then, and we all had wonderfully cynical perspectives and sharp humour. We had a couple of perennial jokes that exactly illustrate my feelings for footnotes and tomes. The first is …

The battle commander needs to send a message. He tells his adjutant, ‘Send this message: send reinforcements, we’re going to advance.’ The adjutant passes it down to the lieutenant who passes it to the sergeant major, who passes it to the sergeant, who passes it to the corporal, who passes it to the squaddie who is the Sigs Op of the night. The Sigs Op sends the following message, ‘Send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance’ …

My point … things that have been written down ages ago and then translated many times from the original language can end up as Chinese whispers and very likely do. Add in that everyone has their own opinion of what the ancient writer means … As Clint Eastwood says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, ‘Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one!’

Our other perennial joke is …

Definition of an expert – an “ex” is a has-been, a “spurt” is a drip under pressure!

Yeah … well … LOL and who hasn’t felt that then? My point is that it is only to easy to feel oneself to be an expert, especially if you have alphabet soup after your name (and yes, I do too! I just never mention it!). And it is only to easy to act like a drip under pressure if you feel your academic standing is threatened!

Graves went round breaking rules and threatening everyone with his ideas and insights. That was right up my anarchical parents’ street and my hubby too and, of course, myself. I really learn things well when I observe, not when I try to learn from books. That always feels like learning someone else’s script to me and I’m really useless at living in someone else’s way … actually (with my psychotherapist hat on) so are most people. We do conform because if we don’t we find ourselves out of a job, with no money for rent or food or heating, and quite possibly out of friends too as we’re not doing what they think we should. Question … are such folk really friends?

So, back to Graves … he not only climbed out of the box he largely ripped it to shreds and turned the remains on its head and then set fire to it. For some of us a phoenix rose out of those ashes. For others he is anathema. And some ditz between the two *smile*.The scientific perspective will be that nothing is proven, ever, everything is always changing and growing and evolving, there are no tomes, no stone tablets, that cannot be broken. That feels like life to me; life is always changing and growing and evolving, it’s never the same from one moment to another … and I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded now of the Incredible String Band and their song “This Moment” … “this moment is different from any before it, this moment is different, it is now”. I think many folks forget this, quite possibly find it very scary and unsettling, they want a “stable base” from which to be. But we live on the third rock from the sun that’s hurtling through space like a ball on the end of a string at some 67,000 mph! Yikes! The Earth herself is spinning on her axis at about 1000 mph – double yikes! And we think we’re staying still ??? Umm …

I’ve always found Graves to be like contemplating all that, all those impossible things that are utterly real, like light being particles and waves, like we’re spinning at 1000 mph and flying through space at 67,000 mph, like wouldn’t it be fun if when I drop my keys they go up and gravity works backwards? Yay, all scary stuff … but wow is it exciting *big grin*.

The lovely sleep of winter. Or not.

And so, with the autumn equinox behind us and the nights growing longer we begin the lovely, restful descent into peace and darkness where we will dream up future plans ready to send forth our shoots again next spring.

If you’ve read anything on Paganism or Druidry, the odds are you’ve run into that sentiment. Evidently it works for some people – for the autumn and winter fans this is a happy time of year. If you have a warm, comfortable dwelling, are insulated from the excesses of weather, confident you can pay your heating bills no matter what, and in a state of good mental and physical health, winter is no bother at all.

My seasonally affected friends are watching the loss of light with the grief that inevitably brings. There are so many people more vulnerable to depression in the winter months, due to shortages of sun-induced serotonin in the brain.

For anyone in poverty, winter is a nightmare, and there are a lot of people in poverty just now. Not having enough food is tougher in the cold, and the issues of heating bills are many. Cold properties invite damp, mould and sickness. There’s a social impact – you won’t invite anyone else into your cold, damp, mouldy home if you can help it.

My seasonal challenges are akin to the ones my female ancestors have probably always faced. I do not have a tumble drier, I depend on sun and wind to dry my clothes. Wet winters make laundry slow and difficult, again with the lingering damp invitation to moulder. I don’t have a car, and walking everywhere can be an exercise in getting very cold, or wet through. At least this year I have a decent waterproof coat, but that hasn’t always been the case. I know people who jog, go out there and get soaked to the skin as part of their sport, but that only works when there’s a hot shower and a washing machine to come home to – not everyone has those, none of our ancient ancestors did. For most of human history, the threat of being cold and wet has been considerable.

The story of winter as a gentle, restful sleep time is a story of modern western privilege, only available if you have money and resources to block out the cold. If you’ve got to keep a fire burning for the next four months and have to source your wood (again, our ancestors mostly had to sort this for themselves) winter means more work, not less. Food supplies depend on stores – grain, apples, whatever else you dried. Mice become a real danger in such a context. If the harvest was poor, then you’d head for the winter knowing there was every chance you’d starve if spring was late. Elderly and fragile individuals would know they were especially likely to die. Our winters are not like that at the moment.

For me, our attitude to approaching winter is one of the most overtly modern aspects of contemporary Paganism. It is far from what you get when living marginally. For our ancestors, winter was a tough time, demanding, difficult, and threatening. The cold could kill you. Hunger could kill you. Hungry predators might try and kill you. The threats and challenges of winter have only been mitigated in the last hundred years or so, and even then – only for those who have the money. There will be plenty of people in our affluent societies who will die if this winter is a cold one – the elderly are often victims. There will be people going cold and hungry who cannot afford to heat their homes or cook their food.

The veneer of civilisation is thin. If the power goes off or there isn’t fuel for cars, most of us will be rapidly heading towards more ancestral-style experiences of the dark half of the year.

Somebody else’s problem

One of the key things for holding effective boundaries, is knowing what is yours and what is not. Other people’s emotional responses create a real challenge here. On one hand, the person who is made responsible for how others feel can be subject to control and abuse, on the other, the person who pays no regard to their impact will likely become abusive and problematic to others. There’s a very delicate balance here. What are we responsible for, and what are we not? There are no tidy answers, but a lot of important questions to ask.

It flows both ways – because we are affected by others, and affecting others all the time. We experience, and we react, and to some degree that reaction is a choice. If something causes us to be angry, then we may say ‘this makes me angry’. If something hurts us, ‘this makes me upset.’ Our own thoughts can (but not always) play a part here. If we’ve had to infer or interpret in order to suffer, we’re partly responsible. “You said that, which means… and therefore… and now I am in pain.” Making other people responsible for our interpretations is hardly fair, but if we are not especially self aware, we can infer without noticing that we’re doing so, taking things that were not meant as we imagine and reacting accordingly.

Equally when what we do and say has an impact other people don’t like, we can all be really defensive about that. We justify it – we are not responsible for their feelings. We are giving them a helpful and useful challenge. We are just being honest and telling it the way it is. We cannot be expected to walk round on eggshells just because they are a bit delicate. We cast our behaviour as reasonable and theirs as irrational in order not to have to feel uncomfortable or consider changing.

The person who is too influenced by how other people react can become a ‘people pleaser’ – unable to express their own feelings, needs and wishes. Put a people pleaser with someone who can never be wrong, and they will suffer horrendously. If they are fortunate, they will have a story about how heroic, noble and longsuffering they are. If unfortunate, the story will be that they are useless and undeserving, such that they end up expressing gratitude and apology to the person who is hurting them.

We are all works in progress, all flawed, learning, prone to error. We all have our stories and wounds, our needs are not always obvious, neither are our fears and vulnerabilities. To do more than chafe along another person’s edges takes time and effort. It requires the trust to be honest about how we react, and the trust to listen to how other people see things. This isn’t a blame game, establishing one party as good and right while the other is bad and wrong. Blame games perpetuate relationship problems. If we start by assuming that what is heard is not always what is meant, what is intended is not always what manifests, what is painful is not always an attack, and that it is entirely reasonable to be asked to change and make effort in order to further a relationship… there’s a place to start building.

The person intent on digging in and being right, or huddling down and accepting they are wrong no matter what… cannot create good relationship. Only when we start taking into account that we are messy and flawed, and so is everyone else, can we open the way to working out how to relate to each other. We do have some responsibility for how we inspire each other to feel – for well and woe. Our behaviour is our own business, and how we choose to manifest feelings must be laid at our door. Unless a gun is held to your head, no one is ‘making’ you do or say anything, but in the desire to protect ourselves from perceived attack, it is all too easy to go on the defensive. I am inclined to think that if our culture favoured co-operation and did not reward competition so enthusiastically, this would all be  good deal easier to sort out.

Have an ego trip, save the world

The odds are that you, like me, spend most of your time feeling not very important. Our votes change nothing. Big corporations and international agreements move the world in direction we are powerless to resist. If you aren’t a chart topping best selling, box office breaking in the news and on the magazine covers kind of person, you know that what you say and do doesn’t add up to much. You know this because it is reinforced every single day, mostly by the media. There’s the great and the good, who set the agenda and make the decisions that matter, and there’s the rest of us.

Most of our ancestors would not have spent their lives feeling so small. When your world is a tribe, a village, even a small town, your scope for mattering is much improved. If you’ve living the marginal, tribal life then any one person’s choices or actions can make or break, kill or save for a whole community. For most of human history, our choices mattered greatly to the survival options of our nearest and dearest. We evolved with our opinions counting for something to create this culture that treats most of us as interchangeable and irrelevant.

However, the ‘irrelevant’ 99% of us represent a lot of life lived and choices made. When you look at what we do collectively, we clearly do have a lot of potential for power, much of which we squander because we’re so busy buying the idea that what we do doesn’t make much odds. If we all pulled in the same direction, everything would change.

My invitation to you, is to have an ego trip. Start treating your personal choices as though you were making decisions for all of humanity. Start acting like you are a king or queen and that the fate of many lies in your hands. See each choice you make as powerful and important, and hang on to that no matter what you hear to the contrary.

For a start, this one life is the life you have, and your experience of it is the most important thing that will ever be available to you while you live. You are entitled to take that seriously. Within your own life, your choices are of vast importance, and you do have the power to make changes. Even if the wider political scene isn’t going the right way, you can act to resist, and will feel happier for upholding your own values even if it does seem like a drop in the ocean compared to what’s needed. There is always the possibility that if more people act with you, larger scales of change become possible, and in living what you believe you will encourage and inspire others to do the same. Small stones thrown into ponds can make huge ripples.

In Paganism we tend to say that we are all our own priests and priestesses. We take spiritual roles that would once have belonged to rulers. Arguably, democracy puts all of us in a position of sovereign relationship with the land. So why not embrace that fully and take that sense of power and significance into the rest of our lives, to make changes?

We are continually bombarded with messages of our own irrelevance. Every news item that tells us how somewhere, far away, other people are making choices that will affect our lives, tells us that we are lesser. We do not have the power. Feeling powerless, we are encouraged to think we have no choice but to go along with what we are told. We always have choices. We do have power. We need to claim it.

Who are you, anyway?

People fascinate me. We have a social habit of constructing ourselves according to who we are with. Our professional at-work persona may be very different from who we are with mummy, and who we are in the dungeon – to offer a possible array. For many Pagans, the spiritual self is held separate to the everyday self, as a necessity. Being at odds with the mainstream, we often find it essential to lay that bit aside for many activities. We all hold our social groups separately. We do not want the boss to meet mummy and we sure as hell don’t want mummy to know about the dungeon… It makes the idea underpinning facebook’s ‘real name’ policy’ seem rather childish. Of course many of us have multiple identities. Of course we don’t want to make everything we are available to everyone. Life would be miserable for a lot of people were that to be forced upon us.

Even in close knit communities where there is an appearance of everyone knowing everyone else rather well, we do not always share our secret selves. The intimacy of our spiritual experiences, the privacy we build around our sexual lives, our darkest fears and most treasured hopes are not available to everyone all of the time. Rightly so. No one should be obliged to share anything. There is power in both the sharing and the withholding, and the right to choose how we do that is of great importance.

Sometimes we wear masks, and sometimes we are soul-naked honest with each other. Sometimes what personality we express is part of a complex, even contradictory character. Sometimes it’s what we did because we thought it was expected. Acting roles or baring hearts, we construct ourselves from moment to moment, scene to scene. Often we do that based around habits and notions of normality, and without much thought. At the same time, we’re trying to decode what everyone else is doing, trying to figure out what they meant, if they were truthful, if that whole encounter was real.

No wonder we get so tangled up and confused sometimes!

If someone shows you an array of faces, it raises interesting questions about which ones are ‘real’. What of that was meaningful? What of it should inform all future interactions, and what should be disregarded as white noise or conformity to expectation? In Pagan contexts we may be tempted to big up our Pagan qualities. If everyone else apparently has a spirit guide, totem animal, deity spouse, angelic guardian, witchy granny et al it’s tempting to re-craft what we have in order that we might fit in. Humans are predisposed to wanting to fit in. I have argued before that our most authentic self is the one we aspire to be, but we have to watch out for the person we want people to think we are – which may not be the same at all.

Working out who ‘the real me’ is in all of that can be difficult and confusing. Working out the reality of anyone else is nigh on impossible. And yet it is from these shifting sands that we try to build relationships and communities. It probably explains rather a lot.

Of soul and inspiration

When inspiration comes, it comes as a flow, bringing clarity and a sense of purpose to my thoughts. I know what I’m doing, and I can see how to do it. Whether that’s a scene in a novel, a political press release, the plan for a day… it is discernibly the same process happening. When it happens I am both happy and highly effective. Often it doesn’t happen. Today, the wheel is barely turning and I have no idea where the hamster is.

I know, because I land here often, that there are some basic rules at play. Nothing is an infinite resource, and that includes inspiration. I can’t pull energy and ideas out of (where? The ether? My subconscious?)  forever if I put nothing in. I have to take time to feed my inspiration with beauty, ideas, good music, rest, space to daydream. If there is going to be high quality output there has to be high quality input as well. Unfortunately I don’t always get my life to balance out such that good stuff in sits well with what I’m trying to put out. That in turn leads to days when there are a lot of things I really have to do. With no flow of inspiration to carry me, I have to do it by pushing (or quit). That’s slower, leaving me less time to recharge, increasing the imbalance further. If I let that continue for too long, I will break down, one way or another.

Today’s jobs seem important. They always do. If I leave them, there will be problems. Tomorrow, more jobs will come in. When the inspiration flows, this is fine, but on days like today, it becomes frightening, overwhelming.

And yet I find myself not doing any of what I should be doing, but instead on facebook trying to reason with people for whom a climate change march seems stupid. Comments like ‘if you walk everywhere, you obviously don’t work’ and accusations of smug elitism hurled at protestors. This is another great energy stealer, but unless we convince the apathetic majority, the inertia laden many who are offended by any suggestion that they might need to change… we aren’t going to win, and everything else I’m doing becomes less feasible, too.

And I know, when I read the heartless, souless words of people who just want to get online and ridicule other people, when I see protestors slapped down and good causes mocked… I am seeing people who have no inspiration. I am seeing people who go through every day with no vision or insight, nothing to grant perspective or a sense of purpose. I guess if you can’t imagine anything else, you have to cling in fear to the status quo. If you don’t have the inspiration to picture something better, you will assume this is as good as it gets. If nothing has ever shaken you to the core and thrown you headlong into something that matters, caring may well seem ridiculous.

For all that I struggle with inspiration, I find it hard to imagine what a life entirely devoid of it would be like. How hollow, empty and unrewarding such an existence must be. I’m fairly sure that I’m seeing them, lurking around online, and out there in the wider world, too. Laughing at those who care, mocking those who try, and resisting all change. Not because their lives are so great that any change would be for the worse, but because they cannot imagine it.

Aware that the tides of my own inspiration are so dependent on input, I have to wonder if those I encounter who seem cripplingly uninspired, are malnourished. What comes into their lives to uplift them and feed their souls? What helps them picture a kinder, better, more sustainable world? What encourages them to strive, to try and be better people and to live more rewarding lives? But why would they need any of that? After all, they probably all have televisions.

Of Facebook and real names

While I’m unlikely to have any problems personally with Facebook’s current exercise in enforcing ‘real names’ (I’m using two thirds of my real name) I have a lot of problem with it conceptually. In most aspects of life we are free to use whatever names we want. As a writer or performer you can quite legitimately have more than one name. So long as there is no criminal application, call yourself as you please, so the demand for ‘real names’ is an infringement of a right we otherwise have.

Names have a cultural component. This whole ‘real name’ malarkey is already showing signs of impacting on people who do not conform to white western name standards. It doesn’t matter whether you can prove it’s your ‘real’ name, it is not ok that you get asked just because of cultural difference. Facebook is already flirting with racism on this issue, from what I’ve seen online.

Apparently the use of ‘real names’ reduces risk of online bullying. However, Facebook is not requiring all of us to prove who we say we are, it’s only if a name seems suspect to someone’s mind, that it will be questioned. So you sign up as John Smith, Alice Jones, or the like, and it looks like a regular ‘real name’ giving you all the cover you need to spew hate. This, incidentally is the same Facebook that couldn’t see any problem with a ‘sexy little girls’ page a while back and took some considerable persuading to close it down, doesn’t mind images of violence against animals or pictures of murdered girls hanging from trees. This is the Facebook that finds breastfeeding offensive but won’t shut down hate speech against women. It has some very interesting variations in standards.

Yes, predators use fake names. So do victims who are in hiding. So do people exploring their identities, people with unsafe living arrangements or a need for privacy. “Someone might use it to do a bad thing” is an approach the does not let any of us own anything harder or heavier than latex. You could kidnap someone and tape their mouth over with duct tape, so we’d better not have any more duct tape. It is not the anonymity of a false name that enables trolls online. It is the anonymity of being a tiny irrelevance in a big place, one in a thousand Lisas from Essex, or one of the innumerable Bobs and Daves from the Midlands. Anonymous because we are many, and the net huge. Some people use fake names to do bad things. Some people use guns to kill people (it’s not like they have a vast array of applications). Facebook takes no issue with pro-gun material. Some of us claim more interesting names as a way of standing out – and why the hell not?

Of course Facebook isn’t the only show in town. The power it has at present stems from being as close as we get to ubiquitous. However, that only holds up while it is a place everyone can use. Start drawing rigid lines and making demands, and there are other places to go. I also have a presence on Twitter, Linkedin and google+ and if Facebook becomes too aggressive, unreasonable and demanding I will use other spaces. I won’t be the only one. No one is obliged to show up there, and it is worth pausing to remember myspace, and before that, the yahoo groups. Nothing is forever, not even Facebook.

The right to express yourself is important. It includes the right to use whatever name you wish. It is the oldest trick in the book to bring in controlling laws on the basis that they are for your own good and to protect you. We don’t have to co-operate with that, on Facebook or anywhere else. You can stand around demanding real names, and wait for Rumplestiltskin to run off with your baby – or in this case, your supply of people on which the whole thing depends. People are the key resource here, not the website, and Facebook (like a good many governments around the world) would do well to bear that in mind.

What are philosophers for?

It would be fair to say that Alain de Botton has been a big influence on me in recent years. I’ve read a lot of his books. He’s an atheist thinker, but happily not that interested in the tired old anti-religion arguments you can get from too many other atheists. Instead, he is much more interested in questions of how to live a fuller, richer, more satisfying, more meaningful sort of life without having to refer to deity, afterlife and so forth. With my heady mix of existential and maybeist tendencies, I’m deeply attracted to this approach.

I’ve read some ‘proper’ philosophy along the way. You know the sort of thing, that gets so bogged down in trying to define who ‘I’ is and what we mean by ‘being’ and ‘consciousness’ that your head is aching long before you’ve picked up any tips that might be meaningfully applied to life. I’ve read philosophy that seemed like a foreign language, full of unfamiliar jargon, references to things I hadn’t read… an impenetrable thicket that made the outpourings of Robert Graves look clear and easy. That kind of philosophy has taught me one thing and one thing only – that I do not have what it takes to be a reader of such work, much less a participant in the process.

What is philosophy for, if it is too difficult for some of us even to sit down with it? While I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, I’m by no means the bluntest either, and am prepared to bet that what I couldn’t get to grips with would prove indigestible to a lot of other people as well. Which means philosophy is just for the highly educated, super clever elite and we lesser mortals should just knuckle down and do what our betters tell us. (That may in fact be the gist of Plato’s Republic).

Oddly enough, that doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Wilfully impenetrable writing on entirely abstract and irrelevant topics doesn’t do much for me, either. This is why the discovery of Alain du Botton has been so important to me. He’s incredibly readable, for a start, tending to assume that his audience doesn’t have a doctorate in philosophy. Plain English abounds, as do real life issues. You can read something of his and apply it to your own life. You can read it and dare to think that, given time and effort, you could put together a passable bit of philosophical insight on life yourself. You can aspire…

What really, is the point of philosophy if it does not put philosophy within the reach of everyone who has some interest? What is it for, if not to help us live this life in this world? And what are we here for, if not to reflect a bit on our experiences?

When I first added ‘philosophy’ to the topics list here, I half expected that the Philosophy Police would show up (complete with togas and long beards) to tell me I wasn’t allowed. Not having a doctorate in that subject, I had no entitlement to claim any insight at all. (For the record, I have no such problems or chips on my shoulder when poking about in other subjects for which I am equally unqualified, I think high level philosophy is inherently elitist and exclusive.) It hasn’t happened. Not least because *that* sort of philosopher may not exist, and if they do, they probably don’t get out much, or online. Philosophy is the art of thinking about stuff in a way that is useful. Being a philosopher is being a person who thinks about stuff in ways that are useful. Expressing that in ways other people might grasp is a gift to the world. So I’ll stick with Alain du Botton, and John Michael Greer, and with anyone else who turns up and makes sense, because I’ve come to the conclusion that if philosophy fails to make sense, the philosopher hasn’t done a very good job of it.

For further inspiration, can I direct you to


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